Let My People Go: Cairo, Illinois, 1967-1973 : Civil Rights Photographs

Synopsis

When a young black soldier at home on leave was found hanged in a Cairo, Illinois, police station in 1967, the black and white populations of this southern Illinois river city clashed violently, and the fury, once ignited, raged on for seven years. Jan Peterson Roddy has brought together the photographs of Preston Ewing Jr. with a wealth of collateral materials to document these turbulent years of racial strife.

At the core of this book and providing its essential vitality are 110 black-and-white photographs by Ewing, who at the time this struggle began was the local NAACP president in Cairo. Excerpts from oral histories place Ewing's images in context and fill in the details of the story. Interspersed news clippings, newspaper headlines, and public announcements and documents help re-create a sense of what it was like to live in Cairo at the time. Essays by Marva Nelson and Cherise Smith put the attitudes, events, and images of Cairo in a national context and examine photography's privileged position in presenting and preserving history.

The clash in Cairo serves as a microcosm of the national civil rights struggle in the late 1960s. Let My People Go provides the faces and voices of the movement. Sensational photographs of furious confrontation highlight some of these pages, but this pictorial and narrative account of Cairo's story also shows that this was a multifaceted struggle involving, among other things, great persistence.

The story of Cairo is compelling. It is unique even as it illustrates the common American theme of ordinary people grappling for justice. The perspective is that of a black community that lived through this struggle and wants its story told. It is a story told through an uncommon blend of documentation, human recollection, and analysis.

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