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

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

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

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


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.


CAIRO, ILLIN0IS, is located at the southern tip of the state, one hundred sixty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, and three hundred sixty-five miles south of Chicago. The Ohio River flows into the Mississippi River at Cairo, and the town borders the states of Kentucky and Missouri. With its low elevation and location between the two rivers, the site of what is now Cairo was subject to frequent flooding, and all attempts to establish a community in the years between 1700 and 1800 were unsuccessful. In 1820, approximately twenty black slaves were brought to the site and erected the first buildings. For black residents, it was the beginning of a long history of injustice in the community that continues to this date.

In 1843, flood levees were completed, and by 1860, the population had grown to 2,188. During the Civil War period, 1860-64, Union forces operated out of the Cairo area because of its ideal location near the Southern states. After the war, Cairo continued to grow along with the riverboat traffic. The census of 1900 reported a population of 12,566. As their number in the community grew, black citizens increasingly found themselves victims of racism and violence. Whites enforced complete racial segregation even though it was prohibited in schools and public places by Illinois state law. Black men were lynched. In 1918, black residents organized a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to provide leadership in their fight against racial discrimination. Cairo reached its peak population around 1920, when the census recorded 15,203 inhabitants. The growing black segment of the population was fed by a steady migration from the South. During this period, a proposal was made to expand the citys' boundaries by incorporating land for the future development of industries that would be needed after the demise of a river-based economy--a proposal that was tabled when it became apparent that such an expansion would also entail a significant increase in the number of black voters. Since that time, the population has continuously declined, due to a complex series of economic trends and societal changes. In 1990, the figure had dropped to 4,700.

During the 1940s and 1950s under the banner of the NAACP, black residents continued their struggle for the elimination of injustices against them and were successful in obtaining equal pay for black teachers and public school integration. In the early 1960s, they made gains in ending segregation in public places such as movie theaters and restaurants. Then the hanging of . . .

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