SNCC’s campaign in Cairo, Illinois
Despite Illinois’s relatively liberal reputation, Cairo, a small city far south from Chicago and located on the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, was thoroughly segregated and violently racist. Growing up, Cairo native Charles Koen found the city “really dehumanizing,” and as he grew older, he became increasingly bitter about the persistent racial inequities in his hometown.
In 1961, while Koen was in high school, he met Rev. Blaine Ramsey, the new pastor at Ward Chapel A.M.E. Church in Cairo. Ramsey, a young minister from the University of Illinois, was part of a new militant generation of ministers coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s. He preached a social gospel and encouraged his congregation to challenge Cairo’s unjust systems of racial segregation and discrimination. He plugged himself into Cairo’s long tradition of Black activism by joining the executive board of the local NAACP chapter and working closely with local activists. Among them was Hattie Kendrick, a former school teacher who was fired for her civil rights activities. She was also the great aunt of SNCC’s Charlie Cobb. Kendrick and Ramsey formed the Ward Chapel Social Action Commission to coordinate “activities in the areas of social, race, and economic relations as well as community cooperation.” Ward Chapel soon became the nucleus for the emerging local civil rights movement.
Ramsey became a mentor for Charles Koen and other Black youths who wanted to fight racial discrimination. They began meeting regularly to discuss local problems and develop plans for direct action protests. With Koen at the lead, local youths formed the Cairo Nonviolent Freedom Committee (CNVFC) and invited SNCC to come to the small river city to initiate protests.
John Lewis, Mary McCollum, James Peake, and Joy Reagon–all from SNCC’s direct action wing–answered CNVFC’s call for help in June 1962. Soon after, CNVFC launched “Operation Open City,” with an eleven point plan to desegregate all areas of civic life, including schools, housing, and employment opportunities. But most of its energy focused on desegregating public accommodations, including several local restaurants, the public swimming pool, and a roller skating rink. Their efforts met fierce white resistance.
The first restaurant the young activists tried was the Mark Twain Restaurant, which Koen passed on many summer nights as a child, “imagin[ing] the white folks inside dining and laughing and having a good time.” They were refused service despite a law passed by the Illinois State Government that banned segregated public accommodations. Their waitress simply stated, “I ain’t familiar with no law; what I’m familiar with is you Niggers can’t eat here and if you don’t get your asses out, I’m going to call the police.”
CNVFC and the local movement persisted. By August, the young activists had successfully integrated most of the city’s restaurants, though proprietors continued to harass Black patrons in other ways, like overcharging and providing poor service. CNVFC moved onto local recreation facilities. On August 17, 1962, Koen led a protest at the Roller Bowl. “All hell broke loose,” recalled Hattie Kendrick. The students “were beaten like dogs. They were beaten over the heads with iron rods.” Several were hospitalized after making it back to Ward’s Chapel.
The violence signaled the end of segregated public accommodations in Cairo. Illinois Governor, Otto Kerner, Jr., ordered the city to desegregate in accordance with state law. Economic and political discrimination continued, however. “Once we integrated all over town though, everything ended right there,” explained Koen. “When it came to employment, everything just dropped.” Today, Cairo is one of the most impoverished cities in Illinois.
Preston Ewing, Let My People Go: Cairo, Illinois, 1967-1973 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996).
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985), 273.
Charles E. Koen, “My Story of the Cairo Struggle,” PhD Dissertation, Union Graduate School, February 1980, UMI Micoform (DP10928).
Charles Koen, “Trouble is in Our Way,” Journal of Intergroup Relations (1971), 35-47.
John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), 190-191.
Danny Lyon, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 22-27.
Kerry Pimblott, Faith in Black Power: Religion, Race, and Resistance in Cairo, Illinois (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 2017).