Lifeline to Cairo
By Scott Moore
At the southernmost tip of Illinois, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, there is a small town that has been around since before the days of the civil war. During the war between the states General U.S. Grant trained union soldiers here and it was known to be part of the underground railroad for runaway slaves fleeing north. Its name is Cairo.
During the post-civil war days, and up to the 1920's, it was a boom town and had the potential of being another Chicago. However, traffic circumvented Cairo about that time and went on to Chicago, leaving Cairo in a state of economic depression. Industry moved out and people just kind of forgot about it until recently when it started making some papers (although not many). People started hearing about this small border town because it has been involved in armed warfare for the past 26 months.
At one time its population was 18,000, but has now shrunk to 6,000 persons, and since the 1960 census 3,000 people have left. Forty to fifty percent of the population is black. In the past 27 months five police chiefs, two mayors, two fire chiefs, and the county sheriff have resigned in disgust over continuous trouble. The four black policemen, once on the force, have resigned because of the racist policies, leaving an all-white department. Two weeks ago the U.S. Labor Department allocated $133,000 to Cairo for the establishment of a Public Service Intern Program. This opened 25 job positions for the community. All 25 are to go to the police department.
Although all of Cairo has been in an economic depression for the last 30 to 40 years, the black community has, in American tradition, taken the brunt of unemployment. Jobs are hard to find, housing is substandard, and politically, they have no voice. Three years ago things got so bad that Rev. Charles Koen, a 25 year old Baptist minister, formed a group called the United Front to combat these injustices.
In order to fight back, the United Front instituted a boycott of white-owned stores which has been in effect for the last 26 months. Seventy percent of the white-owned businesses, because of their racist practices, have been boycotted and the boycott has been about 90% effective. The United Front has picketed in front of white stores every Saturday.
In retaliation against the United Front the white Citizens Council, the "white hats" and the police force (all these names are synonymous) have shot into the black community a total of 174 times in the past 26 months. Machine guns, rifles, CS grenade launchers and two armored cars have been used against the black community. Four black folks have been killed in action and several white folk injured. Most of the shooting has been done at night by snipers.
The police station is the tallest building in Cairo. It stands about 500 yards from the black community. The line of fire is direct. Machine guns have been mounted on top of the station and fired into Pyramid Court (an all-black housing project) and the United Front offices. Weapons analysts have been unable to determine the type of rounds used. Some say .50 or .30 caliber. The holes we saw while in Cairo looked like .50's.
VVAW was first told about the situation in Cairo at a steering committee meeting in March by the Arkansas coordinator, Sonny Keys. We were not able to act upon it at the time due to Dewey Canyon III operation in Washington set for April. During DC III Bobby Morgan (a representative of the United Front) told many of the participants about Cairo and the help that was needed there. In May the second steering committee meeting convened. Cairo was discussed and it was felt that VVAW should become involved on a national and local level.
In light of the objectives of the organization, Cairo is of utmost importance in showing the American public that the war must end on all fronts. In many ways the black people of Cairo are suffering the same indignities as of the Vietnamese people. They are being economically exploited, socially ostracized, and politically denied a say in their destiny. Like the Vietnamese they have finally united against that power structure that has suppressed them and are fighting it. The racism which we saw in Vietnam and which many of us agree is one of the reasons for war crimes, exists in Cairo, Illinois. The black community has been fired upon and the Pyramid Courts area is a free fire zone, CS gas and rockets have been used against them. Tanks, in the form of heavily armored cars, machine guns, and other weapons of war have been used against them.
This is happening in America. Yet the people of America don't know about it, and if they do, they still find it hard to believe as they find it hard to believe what we have to tell them about Vietnam. The government of this country has justified this war by saying that we are fighting for freedom and equality and self-determination of the Vietnamese and yet here in our own country people are denied that right and are involved in a struggle to obtain that right; their struggle is our struggle.
VVAW majority membership is white working middle-class. The peace movement has never been able to identify very effectively with the Third World movement because they have not really dealt seriously with the struggle; there has been a lot of liberal talk but no action. The black community is watching Cairo, Illinois on a national level very closely. If VVAW relates in a concrete manner to Cairo, this will bring us closer together in solidarity. It will also make easier working and organizing conditions on the local level.
On April 19, 1971, a task force consisting of Jon Birch, Al Hubbard and myself, was sent to Cairo for Solidarity Day. In meetings with United Front it was found that they needed basically two things:
1) press coverage and
2) supplies in the form of canned food, clothes and medicine
Because the situation in Cairo has been so hot, the press has not covered it. You will remember we saw this same thing happen at the Winter Soldier Investigation, in Detroit - a press blackout. Since VVAW has fair access to the press, the United Front asked that we spread the word about Cairo.
The boycott has meant that the black community has been dependant, to a large degree, upon outsiders to provide food and clothing for their coop. VVAW chapters are gathering material together and shipping them to Mike King at the St. Louis chapter. On August 14, 1971, a press conference with the United Front will be held and the food and clothing will be delivered.
Cairo also needs people with skills - electricians, bakers, plumbers, carpenters, masons, engineers, doctors, and lawyers. If possible they would like individuals to come to Cairo for a week, or as long as they can stay to train and help the brothers and sisters in these areas. Anyone interested should contact Mike King at 6244 Delmar, St. Louis, Missouri; phone #'s: (314) 862-5735, (314) 381-4975.