At the crossroads of race in America, the death of a black soldier ignited — and helped end — this town

Shamdai Sukhan | TIMELINE

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Illinois town of Cairo represents promise. The white Huck and the black Jim are both in flight from their own uniquely American oppressions, and are inextricably linked by their journey. They find themselves adrift on a raft, setting out for freedom on the Mississippi river with the belief that if they can get to Cairo they will be out of danger.

The town (pronounced KAY-rowlies at the convergence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and during slavery was the southernmost tip of free soil. As such, Cairo became a hub for blacks fleeing the Confederate South. But just as the town was positioned at the intersection of freedom and slavery, it was also caught at the intersection of history. What Twain’s characters failed to take into account was the ugliness of a town in which freed blacks and antebellum whites attempted to co-exist, of a town where North meets South. On his 1843 tour of America, Charles Dickens described Cairo as “a breeding-place of fever, ague, and death … A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away.” As Cairo’s industries declined and tensions grew between Black Americans fighting for equal rights, these competing forces came to a fiery clash.

On Saturday, July 15, 1967, 19-year-old Army Private Robert Hunt was cruising around Cairo with five of his friends. He’d been staying with his Grandmother in Urbana, Illinois, and took the three-and-a-half-hour trip to Cairo to visit friends and relatives. The police stopped their car, alleging a broken tail-light. Such stops, effectively for driving while black, were not uncommon in Cairo according to a 1972 U.S. Civil Rights Commission report. Witnesses say that Hunt — a passenger in the car — and the officer engaged in a tense exchange of words which resulted in Hunt’s arrest for disorderly conduct as well as being AWOL. He was arrested and taken to the Cairo police station. By 1:30 am of the next day, Robert Hunt was dead.

The two officers on duty claimed they found him hanging in his cell. They said he had committed suicide, had hung himself from the mesh ceiling of his jail cell with his T-shirt. The black community believed that the police murdered Hunt. Two months later, an inquest conducted by Alexander County coroner Leo Siers ruled Hunt’s death a suicide.

But physical evidence seemed to point to the contrary. In Jan Peterson Roddy’s Let My People Go, Hunt’s cousin recalls seeing the body at the funeral home. “You could see where he could have been beaten,” he told Roddy, “we know he didn’t hang [himself] with a T-shirt.” It also seemed unlikely that the wire mesh on top of his jail cell would have supported the weight of his hanging body. The police officers present during Hunt’s death, the same who allegedly found him, had, according to a news story announcing Hunt’s memorial service, a reputation for violence and brutality. Hunt’s military records would later reveal his exemplary service, as well as the fact that he had been on leave at the time of his arrest in Cairo, not AWOL, eliminating the pretense for the arrest. Even more suspiciously, immediately following the inquest, the two police officers and the coroner all resigned.

According to an account given in Let My People Go, authorities paid the jailer — who apparently saw what happened between Hunt and the officers — to stay silent and leave town. The body was embalmed without an autopsy. FBI documents obtained by The Cairo Project indicate that the bureau did not pursue the case, fearing the riots and violence they believed would follow. The NAACP did fight for and win the right to have Hunt’s body autopsied, but the report detailing the results of that autopsy has been lost and conflicting results were published by the regional papers at the time. The actual cause of Private Hunt’s death will likely never be known.

Private Hunt’s death and the cover-up which followed triggered an explosive outrage from Cairo’s black community, which ultimately erupted into three days of riots. On July 17, protesters firebombed a warehouse, a car, and three businesses, including a lumber mill that employed mostly black workers. The foreman’s home was also burned. The following day, shots were fired at a police car, and more businesses were firebombed. Sporadic gunfire was also reported. By July 20, a protest leader declared that Cairo would become Rome burning down if the white community did not meet blacks’ demands for economic equality and an end to segregation and police brutality.

Governor Otto Kerner called in the National Guard to “restore peace and order.” This meant black areas of town were cordoned off and an 8 p.m. curfew was imposed, punishable by arrest. Meanwhile white residents formed a vigilante group which became known as the White Hats. A 1987 article in the Washington Post reports that stories being handed down to today’s black youth by their elders tell the horror of the time: tales of “people sleeping in bathtubs to protect themselves from the potshots of white marauders; whole neighborhoods becoming de facto detention camps, ringed by troops and controlled by strict curfews, police assuming that any group of three or more blacks constituted a riot threat.”

Cairo remained a city at war for the next few years. According to the Post, “Blacks attacked the police station, police attacked the housing project, and white and black citizens attacked each other.” In 1969, more than 170 nights of sniper fire were reported to authorities as a deep-seated rage at years of systemic racism ran up against vestiges of an unrelenting antebellum attitude. Cairo devolved into a racially tense and socially stagnant place. The decline of the riverboat industry and the rise of the railway created an economic vacuum that exacerbated an already difficult situation for the town. Cairo fell hard and fast.

In the years after the death of Robert Hunt, journalist Ron Powers would call Cairo “a violent and sorrowful little town…a crushed snake, waiting for the setting sun to still its thrashes.” At its peak, in 1920, the town had a population of 15,000. Today, just 2,300 people live in Cairo — a ghost of its former self, symbolic of a country trying and failing to overcome its brutal history.

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