Going to tweet a bit about Cairo and its history to put some of what’s in this story in perspective motherjones.com/politics/2018/…
Cairo is easy to find. You’re almost drawn to it on the map—at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio on a little teardrop of land. You’re basically never out of sight of a levee or a floodwall, which envelop the city.
For that reason it’s always had an outsized place in the American mind. It’s in Twain and Langston Hughes; it’s the place where Grant became Grant and Barack Obama became Barack Obama.
Here's Obama telling a story about Cairo he told many times; it's also in Audacity of Hope.
Like *many* places, the town’s growth didn’t live up to the spectacular early plans, but it did grow into a city of 20,000, a river and railroad town with a big vice economy. The location also shaped the city’s growth in another big way.
It was, in theory, where the Jim Crow South was supposed to end. Per "Warmth of Other Suns," Southbound trains stopped at Cairo to switch to segregated cars. Northbound trains brought families from the Mississippi Delta.
During the civil war freed slaves from Grant’s campaign congregated at Cairo and formed the North’s only “contraband camp,” and from then, on Cairo had a large black community.
But town leaders and rank-and-file white residents enforced a strict divide. There was a lynching downtown in the early 20th century, and the Klan burned crosses on the levee.
When the feds started building public housing in the '30s, their guidelines required reinforced existing segregation patterns. So in Cairo, they built two projects. One not far from the grand old mansions in the white neighborhood. Another on the site of the old contraband camp.
These projects, Elmwood and Pyramid Court, were only a short walk from each other but the barrier was formidable. Paul Lambert told me he never even saw Elmwood until he was 17 or 18: motherjones.com/politics/2018/…
The people who ran Cairo were happy to keep it that way. They fiercely resisted any push toward civil rights when Thurgood Marshall—and later John Lewis—came to town. The experience of the only white member of the local NAACP speaks volumes.
That's what Langston Hughes came to Cairo to write about. We've actually got a photo of the arrow in the piece:
Everything came to a head in 1967, after the *extremely* suspicious death of a 19-year-old black Army private in a Cairo jail. Cairo had a longer, more concentrated, and more violent civil rights struggle than virtually anywhere else. Here's their mayor:
There was a lot going on, but at the core of the struggle was a fight over housing.
Pyramid Courts was the epicenter of the struggle. Here's the national guard surrounding the projects in the late 60s:
Finally in 1974, six years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the federal government reached a legal agreement with the county to integrate the two different public housing complexes and fix its hiring practices:
Places like this were the reason the Far Housing Act existed. If there was ever a place for HUD to keep an extra set of eyes on, it'd be the housing authority in Cairo. But the monitoring period ended after two years.
I'll let you read the piece to get the rest: motherjones.com/politics/2018/…
But one point that's not in there: Cairo was a fluke, not in the underlying problems, but that its story got out there. It's only because a dogged reporter (@MollyParkerSI) latched onto it and kept following it for three years that you're reading about it
Don't take it from me. The Southern's reporting was cited time and again by elected officials who picked up on the issue. It broke the dam on a scandal. And not every community has that.
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