Readers of Mark Twain will remember Cairo as the town Jim and Huck rafted toward on the Mississippi. At the southernmost tip of Illinois, it oversaw the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio River, which would take Jim into the free north. But they missed it during a period of heavy fog and instead found themselves drawn into the deep south. After writing this plot twist, Twain put Huckleberry Finn aside for six years, unsure where to go next.

By the late 1960s, Cairo was still suspended in fog and fighting the pull of the Big Muddy. Its African-American population (39 percent of a community of 9,348) had integrated public places like restaurants and movie theaters but was still disenfranchised, denied equal access to education, civil employment, and housing. Then in 1967 the mysterious hanging of a young African-American soldier in a Cairo prison cell ignited a six-year struggle between civil rights activists and a white citizens’ group that resulted in 150 nights of gunfire.

Preston Ewing Jr.’s book of black-and-white photos, Let My People Go, chronicles that period with highly charged images of confrontation and solidarity; accompanying the photos are interviews with Cairo residents who were active in the movement. Ewing, a native of Cairo, was working for the NAACP in 1967 as an education director, documenting segregation at midwestern schools, when Hattie Kendrick, president of the Cairo chapter, asked the 21-year-old to take over her position. “I was a little reluctant,” Ewing recalls, “but my father encouraged me. As he’d say, each generation has a responsibility to reduce the level of racism that the next generation inherits.”

Ewing was among the first to hear about 19-year-old Robert Hunt. Hunt, a Cairo native, had been on leave from the army when he was stopped by police for an alleged traffic violation. “I got a call at like 2:30 in the morning that he was dead, that he had been hung at the police station,” Ewing says. “I went to the mortuary, and the mortician said, ‘Yeah, something happened to him other than hanging. Come back here.’ So a group of us went back and we saw the body, and we saw the marks and bruises on his body.” Ewing’s group inspected the cell: a makeshift affair inside an old post office, it consisted of seven-foot-tall concrete block walls with wire mesh at the top. Hunt, they concluded, could never have hung himself with his T-shirt, as police claimed; his feet would easily have touched the ground. But the body had been embalmed immediately to prevent an autopsy, and Hunt’s death was ruled a suicide.

The incident touched off three nights of rioting and brought the National Guard to Cairo to restore order. As Ewing launched a series of legal challenges against the city, a weekly black newspaper, the East Saint Louis Monitor, offered him a page a week for news of the conflict. He began to indulge his long-neglected interest in photography. “I found out that photographs are a good way of taking up space,” he laughs. “Which was good, because of some of the things that were going on, the photographs were saying more than a story you could write anyway.”

The most dramatic of Ewing’s photos capture face-offs between marchers and the Cairo police, whose pint-size chief, Roy Burke, tolerated an open alliance between his officers and the White Hats, a local vigilante group. Ewing had obtained a federal court order to force the police to protect the marchers, but Burke “felt that the police’s hands were tied,” he says. “They had been given this responsibility basically by the community to put a stop to what was going on, but his hands were tied. So he would often come out and verbally try to provoke some of the [marchers]….If they had engaged in misconduct, it would be appropriate for him to have his police weigh in, Rodney King style.” In one of Ewing’s electrifying parade shots, Burke prepares to swing a baton at four parade marshals. “So that was part of the whole problem,” says Ewing. “Our challenge was keeping people nonviolent because we knew they wanted us to be violent.”

At such moments, Ewing let the art take care of itself. “When things were quiet, it was kind of easy to think of what would make a good shot, what would be a good angle, how to compose it, and things like that,” he says. “But at times there were things going on when you couldn’t think of that. You just think, give me the picture.”

His photos note the smallest details of a community’s fear, confusion, and resentment. In one a black toddler turns her hurt stare on the photographer, bullet holes marking the wall behind her. Ewing’s portrait of a young girl giving a black-power salute in a July 1969 parade seems posed, more agitprop than art. But another parade shot, a close-up of a marcher whose picket sign demands “DIGNITY,” captures the woman’s nobility in her raised chin and narrowed eyes.

The photo is Ewing’s favorite, and for years he’s been searching for its subject, an out-of-town demonstrator he’s tracked to Charleston, West Virginia. Such detective work intrigues him: though he now works as a consultant with the National Center for the Educational Rights of Children and serves as Cairo’s city treasurer, he’s compiling a biracial history of the city, from its birth as a slave town in 1820 to the civil rights era to the present.

Ewing tries to look forward, but Cairo’s long and tragic history has a way of pulling one back. The truth about Robert Hunt’s death has never been revealed, but Ewing still hopes for an answer. “As certain whites come to me now, telling me different stories about different things that happened back there that I didn’t know, I feel that one day we may even hear something about that one.”

Ewing will read from Let My People Go Wednesday at 7 at Borders Books and Music, 830 N. Michigan. Call 312-573-0564.

–J.R. Jones

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Preston Ewing Jr. photo/ photos by Prestin Ewing Jr.