WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. John Lewis, one of the “Big Six” organizers of the Civil Rights Movement and an American icon, said this past week that he was troubled to hear of the housing crisis in Cairo, where he spent the summer of 1962 organizing young people to integrate businesses and a recreational center as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“It bothers me very much,” Lewis, D-Ga., said of learning recently that Housing and Urban Development is relocating about 400 people from two failing public housing complexes, and that at least some families who want to remain in Cairo may have to move to other communities because the federal government does not plan to rebuild in the city.
Lewis said the government “must help” rebuild Cairo. Lewis said that as he sees it, that means HUD providing for replacement housing in the city.
The 77-year-old Georgia congressman said he recalls clearly the efforts he and others led in Cairo 55 years ago. He was 22 that summer, and had just participated as one of the 13 original members of the Freedom Rides challenging the segregation of interstate buses.
“I think the government should lend a helping hand to rebuild the housing because they participated in the destruction of the housing,” Lewis said, in a brief interview with the newspaper last week.
“People should have a clean, safe and decent place to live.”
The 75-year-old complexes known as Elmwood and McBride are no longer considered safe. Past local managers of the Alexander County Housing Authority have been accused of failing to perform even basic routine maintenance at the properties that house almost entirely black families while spending generously on their own benefits, excessive travel, and questionable contracts, legal settlements and retirement deals.
Though HUD officials knew about brewing problems with ACHA management practices dating back to at least 2010, according to records obtained by the newspaper, the federal agency continued to send millions of dollars to the local housing authority while doing little to hold officials accountable.
HUD has been roundly criticized for abdicating its oversight responsibility, though the agency has never detailed what happened. The Southern Illinoisan has filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests to HUD seeking information about why corrective action was not taken sooner. Those requests are pending.
Federal housing officials announced at an April 10 meeting in Cairo that they would begin moving people from Elmwood and McBride because they are no longer safe. HUD is providing every family with a tenant protection voucher, which subsidizes rent paid to a private landlord, but some people are upset that they cannot remain in Cairo because of a shortage of affordable housing. In response to past calls by citizens and city leaders that HUD rebuild housing in Cairo, federal housing officials have said they cannot because the economic conditions there make it impossible to attract a private developer to partner with the government. HUD says it is no longer in the business of developing public housing solely with federal taxpayer dollars.
Asked about Lewis’ remarks, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown declined comment on behalf of the agency.
The HUD Office of Inspector General is presently conducting a review, at the request of Illinois U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, of who knew what at HUD, when they knew it, and why they did not act sooner to protect the health and welfare of Cairo’s families.
In a statement, Duckworth said she is pleased to hear Lewis’ remarks of concern for the citizens of Cairo. “When John Lewis is on your side, it’s a pretty good sign you’re doing something right — Cairo’s residents should be proud," she said.
“In my time in Congress, it’s been an honor to work with Congressman Lewis on several issues from gun violence to civilian national service and to call him a friend," her statement continued. “His knowledge of Cairo’s history and his work to secure civil rights for southern Illinoisans and all Americans will be invaluable as we continue pushing for solutions that help the residents of Elmwood and McBride, hold accountable those responsible as well as strengthen the local economy to help Cairo rebuild.”
HUD Secretary Ben Carson, whose tenure at the agency began in March, told the newspaper in August that there are lessons to be learned for the agency concerning what has transpired in Cairo. When he visited the city on Aug. 8, Carson also said it’s possible for there to be a new day for Cairo that would allow residents to return if the economy here rebounds, allowing for the development of affordable housing through a public-private partnership.
In an interview with the newspaper that day, Carson committed to speaking to President Donald Trump and other cabinet-level members of a task force on rural communities on which Carson also sits. Carson said he would relay to them the economic potential he saw in the city to make use of its rivers, railways, airport and interstate access. Asked recently whether Carson had made good on that promise, Brown, of HUD, said he would get back to the newspaper once he is able to check with Carson.
Durbin and Duckworth also recently wrote a letter to Trump asking him to create a cabinet-level commission to address the economic, housing and health crises facing Cairo, saying the intervention of the president is called for given that HUD’s oversight neglect allowed the developments to fall into such disrepair that there’s no option but to tear them down.
Durbin, responding to Lewis’ comments, said: “Few people speak with the moral authority of John Lewis — his experience has given him a perspective that is unique in this Congress.
“He has seen injustice and lived injustice, and it’s an honor to work toward justice for the people of Cairo alongside him," Durbin continued.
U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, whose district includes Cairo, and who alongside Durbin and Duckworth, both Democrats, has called upon HUD to find solutions for the public housing residents of Cairo, said of Lewis’ remarks: “Representative John Lewis is an absolute icon of the civil rights movement. I welcome his drawing attention to the plight of the residents of Cairo decades ago, as well as today.
“We’re all working towards the same goal: providing Cairo residents with clean, safe housing and a place they can call home.”