Education: What's Natural in Cairo
For 75 years, Illinois has had a law against segregation in public schools, but the city of Cairo (rhymes with faro) has never paid much attention. Cairo (pop. 12,400) happens to sit well below the Mason-Dixon line at the point where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet. To all intents and purposes, it is a Southern town, and its 4,000 Negroes and 8,000 whites live out their carefully segregated lives accordingly.
Negroes do not go to the Gem Theater, where the first-run films are shown. They do not eat in the white restaurants, or use the public library; and while the whites swim in the WPA-built pool, the colored folks, as the townspeople say, must "drown in the river." The schools have been separate as long as anyone can remember. Says Mrs. John C. Fisher, owner of the Cairo Citizen: "We've just never thought that this wasn't natural."
Cairo is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and is the southernmost town in the state of Illinois.
Elementary Answer. By last week, Cairo's dream of the segregated life had been rudely shattered. For the first time in years, fiery crosses burned, and the magnolia-lined streets echoed with shots and explosions. The reason: two field workers from the midwest regional office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had moved into town to end segregation in the schools once & for all. They had persuaded dozens of Negro parents to apply to have their children transferred to schools used by the whites.
School Superintendent Leo C. Schultz saw no alternative but to send the applications through for "processing." Other citizens, however, had a more elementary answer. As darkness fell one night, a band of men planted a ten-foot cross on top of the Mississippi levee near a Negro housing project. They planted another on the Ohio levee, and still another on the outskirts of town.
The next night there was more hooliganism. One band of hoodlums appeared on the lawn of a two-family Negro house, planted another cross and set it ablaze. Then they moved on to the home of Negro Dentist James C. Wallace Jr. and blasted away at his house with a shotgun. The next night, a bullet zinged through a window of Dentist W. A. Fingal's house. About the same time, a dynamite bomb exploded in Negro Physician Urbane F. Bass's backyard. Another bomb was tossed in front of the tire shop belonging to Vice President Henry Dyson of the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.
The longest civil rights boycott occurred in Cairo, IL. The boycott lasted for 10 years.
Conspiracy? Police, who insisted they knew who might be guilty, succeeded in rounding up only four young men suspected of being involved. But their performance of duty did not stop there. Last week they arrested eight N.A.A.C.P. members, charged them with "conspiracy to do illegal acts" and with "forcing [children] by threats and inducements to enter school." They also arrested two Negro mothers who wanted their children transferred to white schools. This, said the police, was "unlawfully causing and permitting children to be placed in such a situation that their lives and health were endangered."
In the City of Cairo, Illinois, the public swimming pool (at 24th and Sycamore) was changed to a "private pool" to remain segregated. It finally closed in 1963 to avoid integration. Now the former "whites only" swimming pool is permanently filled with concrete and grown over with weeds. This was the city's response to court-ordered integration.
Apparently, things were almost back to "natural" again in Cairo. One by one, Negro parents had withdrawn their application for transfers. At week's end, only 13 frightened Negro children were in Cairo's six white schools.
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