Cairo, IL: The Price of Racial Conflict?

The decline and near abandonment of Cairo, Illinois has been well-discussed and well-documented, as to some extent has what Ron Powers called its last great civic event, a four-year shooting war between its white and Black communities from 1967 to 1971. Perhaps no place in America suffered as protracted and violent a racial upheaval as Cairo, and the conventional wisdom is that these tragic years of shootings, arsons and boycotts destroyed the town. But as I saw earlier in the afternoon at Hickman, Kentucky, things just aren’t that simple. Hickman experienced none of the fire bombings, snipings, marches or boycotts that wracked Cairo, yet its downtown ended up looking largely the same as Cairo’s, which raises the important question as to whether Cairo experienced the severe racial conflict it did BECAUSE it was dying, rather than dying because it experienced the racial conflict. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that the conflict hastened the processes that were already occurring in Cairo. Either way, what has happened since is in every way a tragedy. Very little of Commercial Avenue remains at all, compared to 1987, when some of the buildings were still occupied and nearly all of them were standing. The city also seems devoid of people these days, compared to my visits back in my college days, when one could find pickup basketball games on side streets off of Washington Avenue. Most night clubs are gone from Commercial Avenue, although several remain, a rap club called Club Elite, a lounge called Mary G’s and something called the Cavalier Club. I didn’t even see many people in either of the city’s projects, the McBride Court (formerly Pyramid Court, which had been the scene of so much shooting in the 1970’s) or Elmwood Court. The boarded up Bennett School (which had been called Booker T. Washington prior to integration) was simply another sad and depressing sign of the town’s decline, as were the abandoned newspaper office, abandoned nursing home and abandoned hospital. What economic decline and racial conflict didn’t do, flooding did, with the most recent flood occurring in 2011. Arguably flooding has discouraged industry from locating in Cairo, and furthered the town’s death. While one views the ruins with a certain degree of shock and horror, and feels that something should be done to preserve what is left, it is likely that nobody will. Frankly nobody cares outside of Cairo, and chances are that few even care within Cairo. Probably there will soon be nothing left at all.

Trolley Night Hip-Hop Cypher at K Presha Boutique @kdotnick @THEREALKIASHINE #RiverArtsFest2013

Friday night at K Presha, Memphis’ upscale hip-hop clothing boutique, Memphis hip-hop artist Knowledge Nick sponsored a cypher session with a DJ out of the South Main Street sidewalk which attracted a large number of MC’s, break dancers and spectators. An hour or so in, Memphis rap artist Kinfolk Kia Shine came by on his way into the city from Atlanta and made a motivational speech to the crowd. However, what should have been a night of good vibes and good music came to an abrupt end when the Memphis Police Department showed up, demanded that the music be cut off and then abruptly attacked, pepper-sprayed and arrested people from the crowd at random, apparently in response to a noise complaint from residents who live in the apartments across the street. The police completely lost control, yelling at us, demanding that we first move off the street onto the sidewalk, then ordering us off the sidewalk into K Presha, all the while never stating the statute or ordinance under which they were ordering our peaceful gathering to disperse.

The Real “Heart of Memphis”: Bitter, Divided and Defeated

#008 Memphis United At the well-meaning Heart of Memphis rally Saturday morning, speaker after speaker praised those of us who had braved the weather to show a different set of values than the Ku Klux Klan. “You are the true heart of Memphis,” was said more than once. Unfortunately it was all wishful thinking, and on Monday, the county commission meeting revealed the bitter truth about the real “heart of Memphis.” After an observer pleaded for a referendum in the county to abolish the residency requirement for all public school teachers, Commissioner Walter Bailey said that would allow outsiders to “absorb” jobs that should go to county residents. Commissioner Terry Roland saw fit at that point to remind his colleagues that he can go to the Republican-controlled state legislature and get the residency requirement overturned. That was followed by Commissioner Henri Brooks complaining that she had been disrespected by her white colleagues on the Commission, comparing their actions to the Ku Klux Klan. So, it is past time that we halt any absurd notions about peace, love or brotherhood being the true heart of Memphis. If it were, we would elect leaders who exemplify those values in their public lives. It is no accident that the KKK repeatedly comes to Memphis to stage rallies. They know fertile ground when they see it.

Racism: Blaming the Liberals?

     The cyberworld rightly responded with shock and outrage at the recent Swedish art installation at which the Swedish Minister of Culture cut into a cake decorated to look like a grotesque caricature of a Black woman. Supposedly, the cake was supposed to call attention to the problem of female circumcision, but all it seemed to call attention to was poor taste and latent racism. Expressions of outrage emerged from all over the world, including this article by South African filmmaker Gillian Schutte

      Unfortunately, Ms. Schutte takes her justifiable outrage over the cake incident and uses it to launch an attack not merely on “white privilege” but upon “liberalists”, including Nelson Mandela. Dismissing Mandela’s efforts at reconciling South Africa, and the entire Truth and Reconciliation process in that country, she accuses Mandela and others of betraying Black South Africans and presumably protecting and preserving white privilege. This is a growing and disturbing trend, namely to attribute racism to those who espouse a doctrine of non-racialism, and this of course plays directly into the hands of conservatives. 

     First, it should be noted that Nelson Mandela’s non-racialism was a consistent part of his outlook from nearly the beginning of his struggle. Who can forget his eloquent statement at the Rivonia trial in 1964 where he stated “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against Black domination.” His “liberalist” views about race were not pragmatic ones born in the situation of the 1990’s.

     Secondly, it must be added that many whites risked imprisonment and death in choosing to take the part of the African National Congress against the Nationalist government, from Benjamin Pogrund to Bram Fischer to Albie Sachs to Trevor Huddleston to Helen Joseph to Joe Slovo.

     Finally, the “liberalist” route taken in the 1990’s by President Mandela and President F. W. DeKlerk was the best outcome possible given the circumstances. Caught between Afrikaner Resistance Movement and Afrikaner Volksunie demands for an all-white “volkstaat”, Ikatha demands for an independent Zulu nation in Natal, and Pan-African Congress and AZAPO slogans such as “One Settler, One Bullet” suggesting a guerrilla war to drive all whites out of South Africa, there were few options that would have not become a civil war or a bloodbath.

     The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions may not have been perfect, but they revealed much of the evil perpetrated by the Nationalist government, brought many of the perpetrators to justice and answered many questions about how the apartheid state operated. The commissions went far beyond anything that has ever been done here in the United States in the wake of slavery and segregation.

     That Gillian Schutte is outraged by racism is admirable. I’m outraged by it. I can never understand why so many white people are not. Nevertheless, the blame for the kind of racism that pervades the world today should not be laid at the feet of liberals, for we are the main ones who have been fighting it all along.

     It was neither the Liberal Party, nor the Progressive Party, nor the Communist Party who came up with the Race Classification Act, or the Group Areas Act, or banning, detention without trial, the pass laws, or any of the manifest ways that racism was encoded and extended in South Africa. Likewise, a good study of the United States will show that political liberals have historically fought against racism.

    We as liberals offer a solution to racism that is based in reconciliation within a united nation. All other solutions offered usually are in terms of some degree of separation in either separate countries or separate states within some sort of federal structure. But for good liberals like Nelson Mandela, that’s where South Africa would be today, a former nation divided into racially-defined homelands.