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Commentary: Impressions of Cairo and the flood's racial undertow

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 6, 2011 - "The thing is, no one wants Cairo here."

John Garrett was packing up his family outside his apartment a week ago as he voiced a common sentiment among Cairo, Ill., residents fleeing the rising Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

A Vietnam veteran, away from Cairo during years of racial strife during the late 1960s, Garrett was loading a rented U-Haul as he prepared to move his wife and daughter to a hotel across the river in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

His daughter, Jane Busby, a 17-year-old high school student, didn't want to go. "Cairo is not an upscale place, but it is my home and I don't want to leave," she said, standing on her front porch.

Sixteen miles to the northwest, the mostly white residents of Olive Branch, Ill., already had lost some homes to the rising waters and were fighting to save the rest.

A crude sign was propped against a car by the side of Illinois Rte. 3. "Need Help," was spray-painted in black lettering on the piece of plywood.

A cluster of four or five houses along the highway was threatened by water from two directions. Volunteers had been filling sandbags for days to construct a makeshift levee to keep out the water. Residents used boats to move their valued possessions from threatened homes.

They worked day and night, young and old, filling and lifting heavy bags full of sand. Many residents said the same thing: "We can't stop now, we've tried so hard."

A friend and I, in Cairo most of the day, put down our cameras and stopped to help. I told them what we'd been up to in Cairo. One of the men, resting for a moment from his labors, responded that Cairo is full of AK-47s, drugs and people who don't want to work for their money. I've heard this voiced many times in my short time living in southern Illinois, but after spending a day with the people of Cairo, the comment caught me by surprise.

Two small Southern Illinois communities face a common danger, yet remain separated by persistent differences.

The Flood's Racial Undertows

Back in Cairo, residents assembled sandbags in the parking lot of the junior and senior high school. Asked if the levees would keep water out of the city, Pastor Phillip Matthews answered a different, unspoken question. "We know what people have been saying about us." His response was in reference to Missouri Speaker of the House Steven Tilley, R-Perryville.

Tilley, when asked recently by a reporter at a press conference, "Would you rather have Missouri farmland flooded or Cairo under water?" replied, "Cairo, I've been there, trust me. Have you been to Cairo?"

Some of the reporters gathered around Tilley laughed at the speaker's comment.

Tilley later apologized for the remark. But it was mild compared to the comments of talk-radio callers in St. Louis who spoke about crack dealers in Cairo.

The remarks from the House speaker and Missouri residents reflected the racial undertones of last week's debate about whether or not to blow up the Birds Point Levee. With the water around Cairo slowly inching higher, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had two options: do nothing and allow Cairo to drown or breach the Birds Point Levee.

However, breaching the levee would flood about 130,000 acres of farmland and destroyed about 100 homes. Missouri farmers spoke movingly in press interviews about losing farmhouses they have lived in all their lives.

Around the same time Tilley made his remarks, Cairo Mayor Judson Childs drafted a statement released on April 27: "Cairo, Illinois, will be the next 9th Ward of New Orleans." With a population about 70 percent African American and the rhetoric of government officials mocking the relevance of their town's existence, this statement did not surprise many members of the community.

The people of Cairo are used to it. They're also used to young reporters like me swooping into Cairo to see the beautiful decay and to talk about the tragedy of a lost town. The reporters talk about the civil rights riots, the lynchings and the segregation. They talk about Cairo as if it no longer exists. One would expect to see tumbleweeds dancing across the streets.

The thing is, Cairo is not a ghost town and it is not lost. While the buildings in what was once a booming downtown area resemble the shells of a Hollywood set, people still live here. While the population is not as large as it once was -- 15,000 at its peak in 1920 -- about 2,600 people are still willing to fight for their hometown.

There was no feeling of panic -- instead the laid-back attitude and confidence often found in small towns. A woman sat gardening in front of an empty building on Sycamore Street; children played in the streets. It certainly did not look like a town about to be flooded.

At the end of Washington Avenue, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, a group of men was sandbagging the driveway of Fred's Fish Market, the southernmost home and business in Illinois. The driveway was a lake from the rising water and threatened to spill through the town.

Indelible images

Even if some people resent the way Cairo is viewed by many in the outside world, the residents of Cairo were polite as I asked to take pictures from the top of a city truck. Wesley Purchase, a member of the Cairo Fire Department, grabbed my hand and, like a Southern gentleman, lifted me onto the truck.

As an outsider, a young white woman with a camera, I was waved at, smiled at, and spoken to like just another resident of any small town.

I've spent a lot of time in Cairo over the last few months. I've visited the projects; I've spoken to the residents. I've nodded and exchanged pleasantries with random people on the street. When I look back over the last week in Cairo and Olive Branch, I have the same visuals for each -- a community coming together, a welcoming face and a small-town spirit that refuses to give up.

Brooke Grace is a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Mass Communication and Media Arts.