Recalling the front lines of LBJ's War on Poverty

Scene: Lee County, Arkansas, the third poorest county in the nation. Time: 42 years ago. Enter: a young band of out-of-town idealists who want to bring some medical care.

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The Lee County Cooperative, today a thriving institution; with the author.

Scene: Lee County, Arkansas, the third poorest county in the nation. Time: 42 years ago. Enter: a young band of out-of-town idealists who want to bring some medical care.

I have just returned from a weekend in Lee County, Arkansas.  Situated along the Mississippi River in southeastern Arkansas, Lee County sits on delta land that is flapjack-flat.  It was once called plantation country, but is now covered with broad swaths of corporate farms. The county seat of Lee County is located in Marianna, population 5,181.  Downtown Marinna is built around a town square.  It is bleak.  Not a single operating business occupies the town square store fronts.  Marianna sits 16 miles off the freeway.  What retail that exists is located on the road leading out of town.

I journeyed to this small, impoverished part of America to reconnect with events from my past.  I wanted to discover what changes 40 years had wrought, and in some ways I hoped to understand myself better — who I was then and who I had become.

After years of 1960s college activism I had moved into my first career position as a young analyst at the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington, DC.  OEO, as it was known, was the War on Poverty arm of the Johnson administration’s Great Society initiatives.  I had been drawn to this work by background and through my enthusiastic embrace of the presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy.  I had had the good fortune of meeting and speaking with Bobby Kennedy just weeks before his assassination.  He had been compelling in how he articulated the presence of hunger and poverty in the wealthiest country on the face of the earth.  I wanted to do my part to change the conditions that caused the hardships of which he had given voice.

During the winter of 1968 I was involved in a special project at the headquarters of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a division of OEO.  VISTA volunteers were young college graduates who spent a year after graduation working in low income communities across America providing all nature of skills to improve local conditions. There were often called the domestic Peace Corps.

We wanted to see what impact we could have if we created a special program that selected the very best of the best and brightest who applied for the VISTA program; gave them special training, and put them into a small group of counties in the rural south. We called it the VISTA Health Advocates program. It was a project which would have approximately 20 VISTA volunteers. They would be placed in six rural and very economically depressed counties in Eastern Arkansas.

I was tasked with, among other things as a young management intern at OEO, the job of selecting the participants in the Health Advocates program. I personally sifted through the thousands of application folders for the VISTA volunteer program and selected applicants who had been campus leaders and who, in their applications, exhibited some special talents that caused them to stand out from the rest. I was 25 years old, so I was passing judgment on people who were my contemporaries.

Once selected, the Health Advocates attended a special training program in Austin, Texas, and were then placed into the field in Eastern Arkansas. Among the volunteers were the only VISTA medical doctor (Dr. Dan Blumenthal), nurse (Corinne Cass), and entomologist (Jan Wrede). They were placed in Marianna, Arkansas, the county seat of Lee County. At the time it was the third  poorest county in America with an average annual income of just over $1,200.

There was great resistance from the local white establishment to all of our efforts. I traveled in and out of Eastern Arkansas in my role as liaison between headquarters in Washington, DC and the field operations of the VISTA Health Advocates program located in six rural counties along the delta of the Mississippi.

On one trip I stayed overnight at the Holiday Inn at the freeway exit for Forrest City, Arkansas, 16 miles north of Marianna. The freeway was then new, as was the Holiday Inn. Arkansas had boomed under the tutelage of the Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, but that boom had missed, as booms do, the lower rungs of the ladder.

In the morning I came down for breakfast and walked into the restaurant. The hostess said, as I came in with an associate, “The county judge is here and would like to have breakfast with you boys.” Well, the county judge in the rural south was typically the most powerful elected official in the county and presided not only over the court, but over the county itself. Often, the county judge lacked any legal education, and in fact, may not have had any education beyond the eighth grade. No matter! Even-handed justice in the rural south didn’t require education; it just required good common sense.

I sat down across from the judge. He was silver haired and lean. I asked him why he wanted to see us. He said that he wanted to talk with us; that he didn’t like us, “enticing the nigras to demonstrate.” I told him we were working with VISTA and working with volunteers in his county. Recently two volunteers had moved into a small town on the east side of his county. Within days of their arrival they had both been severely beaten by some local thugs. I asked him how that could happen in his county. Clearly, he knew about the beatings. He said they had been beaten because, “when they came into town they just failed to properly identify themselves.”

That day I drove around his county in my rental car checking on various volunteers and projects. I was followed all day at an uncomfortable distance by one the sheriff’s deputies. I have a strong recollection of that to this day.  The hair was standing up on the back of my neck.  Thinking about that now, I don’t think we felt fear in the palpable way we should have.  We were driven by our ideals to do a job and nothing would stand in the way of our ardor.

There was no health care for poor whites or poor blacks in Marianna. If you were ill you had to make a three hour drive to Little Rock or Memphis. We decided to put together a rudimentary health clinic. There was no space and we couldn’t rent space from white merchants so we started the health clinic in the rental house next to the black-owned funeral home. In many small towns in the south, the most prominent and wealthiest black man was the owner of the funeral home. That was the case in Marianna. He owned a Cadillac and was very refined and worldly.

We needed an executive director for the clinic which we called the Lee County Cooperative Clinic. Somehow we found Olly Neal. He had grown up in Marianna and then moved to Chicago. He had returned to Memphis and we hired him to run the clinic. He was an extraordinary and charismatic man.

Once established, the cooperative became a vehicle for all manner of community activity, not just health and nutrition. When we first began work in Mariana we discovered that only 18 to 20 percent of the registered voters were black, while more than half of the population was black. Clearly, a voter registration campaign made a lot of sense. Over time, enough black voters registered to provide a black majority in the electorate. The logical next step was to run a slate of black candidates for each office on the upcoming election.

Election night, as ballots were being counted from the precincts around the county, it was looking very likely that the black candidates would win. With only a handful of “mixed” race precincts left to count, the black candidates were ahead. At that moment, the county sheriff and his deputies arrived and confiscated the ballot boxes. The next day it was announced that the white candidates had won.

It was a classic example of racist Southern United States election politics. I was outraged and wanted to immediately contact the U. S. Attorney with a claim of election fraud. Olly Neal restrained me and said, “You don’t live here. I live here. We know what to do next time and we will win.”

And, Olly and the people of Lee County, Arkansas did win. Olly continued to successfully manage the co-op, and then returned to school where he ultimately obtained a law degree. He became the first black prosecuting attorney in Arkansas. Later he became a judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, retiring in late 2006. Today, he is living back in Marianna and occasionally sitting as a pro tem judge.

Olly Neal was one of the first people I saw when I walked into the Friday night reception at the Lee County Cooperative Clinic.  It was the 42nd anniversary of the founding of the clinic. They had hoped to have a 40th anniversary but events conspired to postpone the celebration.   There was much to celebrate.  Today, the Lee County Cooperative Clinic is the third largest employer in Lee County. It has satellite clinics and mobile clinics and provides primary care to its citizens.  Although the region remains poor, and young people leave town after high school as no jobs exist for them, today there is health care in Lee County. 

Saturday, 300 people turned out at the Marianna Civic Center for the formal program. It had the feel of a revival.  The choir was spectacular and the food was classic southern country fare. Olly Neal told the story of how his father could never pronounce the word VISTA.  He called the volunteers VISION Volunteers.  The name stuck.  They handed out pens with VISION Volunteers written on them and plaques thanking us for the work we did all those years ago.

Dr. Blumenthal, the VISTA doctor, returned for the event and spoke.  He reminded us that the hospital in Marianna would not provide him privileges because he treated poor black people. So, he provided medicine the old fashioned way, out of the trunk of his car and on house calls.  He is now a department chairman at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

He ended his remarks with a quote from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

I believed that in 1969 and I believe it today. With the passage of time and the advent of responsibilities I moved to the bleachers and off of that field of play I knew as a young man.  My weekend visit to Marianna may have ignited a small spark.  We did amazing things back then.  We can do them again.


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