Wednesday, January 23, 2008

VISTA Health Advocates

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 the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the agency formed to lead the Johnson administration’s efforts in the so-called War on Poverty.

We wanted to see what impact we could have if we created a special program which 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 went 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 essentially my peers.

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. Blumenthal) and nurse (Corinne Cass). We put them in Marianna, Arkansas, the county seat of Lee County. At the time it was the fourth poorest county in America with an average annual income of just over $1200.

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 back room of 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. 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 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% 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 Coop, then returned to school where he ultimately obtained a law degree. He later became a judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, retiring in late 2006.
In 1996 I attended a dinner for Hilary Clinton and had the opportunity to speak with her briefly about my time in Arkansas. I mentioned the name, Olly Neal. Hilary said, “I know Olly Neal. He is wonderful. He is a judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.”

A couple of years ago Olly and I traded phone calls but didn’t connect. I just did a search and found that among other things, he just contributed $1000 to Hilary’s Presidential Campaign.

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