In the 1960s times were changing in America. The civil rights movement was in full swing as the black community rightfully demanded rights and freedoms to help better their lives. Healthcare became an essential platform in the call for change. A young man named Olly Neal had a vision that embraced this ethos.
We had the opportunity to speak with The Honorable Olly Neal, a lifelong activist, about the fight for healthcare equality. For most of the 70s, Neal was the chief executive officer, the first-ever, of the Lee County Cooperative Clinic based in Marianna, Arkansas. Neal and his community fought for the clinic’s very existence, even in the face of the highest rate of infant deaths in the country amongst many other dire circumstances.
He subsequently became the first black district prosecuting attorney in the state of Arkansas and served as a circuit court judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Could you tell us a little bit about your background?
I was born in 1941, in the city of Marianna, Arkansas, the county seat for Lee County. My father was a subsistence farmer; by the time I was born, he had 40 acres. I was born on that plot. He had the title to it but never did get through paying for it. His cash crop was cotton. He also had a way to grow sufficient food so we were never hungry, which wasn’t the case for everyone.
I went to a two-room schoolhouse, where my mother, even though she didn’t yet have a college education, was one of two teachers. She taught first through third grades; the other teacher taught fourth through eighth. All the kids tried to stay for first, second and third grade so they could learn how to read. Most kids dropped out of school by eighth grade to do farm work, which is what most of us were doing back then. Even though my daddy only finished second grade, he and my mother insisted we all go to school. I was one of twelve kids: the oldest six of my siblings only got through 8th grade, but the last six of us have college degrees and most have post-baccalaureate degrees.
Lee County at this time, of course, suffered from deep racism. White kids went to different schools; they rode a bus to school, we walked. We shopped at the same stores, but any black person could expect to wait behind any white person who came in. There were four doctors in Lee County, but only one had a waiting room for blacks.
When did you first get involved in the Civil Rights movement?
I started to feel an obligation to the community when I was an 18 year-old freshman in 1960 at LeMoyne College, in Memphis. We got the news about the boys who did the sit-ins at the Woolworths in North Carolina. It really started to come to me that we should try to make something happen. I was involved in the first sit-ins in Memphis. We went to public facilities, like the museum and the zoo. I went to the technical library because it related to my schoolwork. We didn’t have access to the books we needed to study. Since the library was only for white people, our biology professor would request the book from the librarian and he would get it from her and then bring it to us. It usually took one or two weeks. And you can’t do that if you’re doing research. It doesn’t work. From that point on I had a belief that I had a responsibility to do something to make the community better.
How did you end up at the Lee County Cooperative Clinic?
After I completed college, one of my friends was running a little community action agency called Memphis Area Project South. They had a nurse practitioner program, bringing nutritious food to pregnant and nursing women. I was hired to keep up with the reports that had to go to USDA [US Department of Agriculture] for the food. When the first VISTA [Volunteers in Service to America] program in Arkansas was established in 1969, in Marianna, they asked me to come down and do the same thing there. That’s how I ended up in Lee County.
What did you hope to accomplish in your role at the Clinic?
I had a broader notion of health. The first thing I was convinced of was that we didn’t just have to find some doctors and treat the presenting illnesses—that’s not where we were coming from. What we wanted to do was find a way to improve the quality of life in the community. Our patient population was subject to the worst outcomes; for example, we had the highest newborn mortality in the state of Arkansas—and amongst the highest in the country. We had very high death rates for older people too—people died in their 50’s and 60’s for what were treated like natural causes: the heart gave out, lungs gave out. We had to do a couple other things besides just treat whatever medical condition [people] came in.
We had to try to do something about nutrition as best we could; we were in a rural area but by the time we were there people had stopped growing vegetable gardens and we had to re-teach that a little bit. One of the best things we did during my era there was to develop water systems and waste disposal systems. The city of Marianna had a water system and central waste collection, but the small towns around us had no human waste collection system. If you were doing well you had a septic system; if you weren’t, you had outhouses—and almost all our people had outhouses.
What was it like when the Clinic first started? Did you meet with resistance from the community?
Yes. I didn’t think we would have long-term success because I did not see all the powers, the people who were locals who had influence, giving us any room to grow. And I could not promote a notion that would just sort of do what they said to do and that would just continue the same health situation we had in Lee County, which is you wait until you’re almost dead and then you get treated. You might see one of the four doctors in Lee County but usually the funeral home would use one of its hearses like an ambulance and drive you over to the charity hospital in Memphis.
When Irwin Redlener [co-founder of Children’s Health Fund] came in ’71, he was a young doctor, and he was talking to everyone all over the world. He pushed us to apply for substantial grants that allowed us to build the facility. He stayed for two years and we were on our way. But there was a lot of resistance in the community.
Poor white folks and black folks in the community were conditioned by their environment to be suspicious of each other, hateful toward each other, a little bit fearful of each other. So people like me would push, and people then would say we don’t want these black folks to take over. We had the second largest budget in Lee County after the schools, and there was just a fear we were going to take over the whole county, and that fear then said we were going to do them like they had done us. And then came the 1971 boycott.
What prompted the boycott of 1971?
We started off very early in 1970 running a slate of black persons for political office in Lee County. And one of those persons got elected to the Quorum Court, which is the county legislative body. And he beat one of the leading white fathers of the community that really ran the county. They just didn’t expect us to win, even though the district in which he lived, blacks outnumbered white folks, and everyone knew him. Same year we ran a County Judge, which is the chief administrative officer for the county, but they took that election from us. Our man actually got more votes; in that election, there was more voter turnout than any election before or after. So we represented a real threat politically. The pressure was building.
Then one day, a woman who was close to us at the center, a social worker assigned to a public school, went into a pizza parlor that was owned by a white police officer. She ordered a pizza. They didn’t have the one she wanted but they just went ahead and cooked her another one without telling her, so she didn’t pay for it and left the pizza there. Well, the cop who owned the place came out in his police capacity and arrested her. That was just the straw that broke the camel’s back; when they arrested her we weren’t going to take it anymore. So the boycott lasted 14 months, from June of ‘71 to August of ‘72.
Your brother Prentiss, along with Rabon Cheeks, led the boycott against white merchants in the downtown business district. Violence broke out during the boycott, and the economic damage was estimated to be in the millions. What positive impact came out of the boycott?
They learned that the black people in that town were powerful, and could affect any of their operations there, like stores. So even if there was no great love, there was a new respect there. They didn’t want another boycott because more than half the stores in the downtown area went out of business.
How has the work of the Lee County Health Center impacted the community overall?
For one thing, black folks realized they could run things. At the Center, the majority of the board was black, I was black; so we were in charge and once we realized we could be in charge of that we realized we could be in charge of other things. Our school board has been majority black several times; the county council has been largely black, so people are participating at a level we had never seen. If you make one part of the community better, you make the whole community better.
And I can think of lots of people who had exposure to the health center who now are medical doctors, doctors of dentistry, PhD’s—I can’t say this is the only reason these people succeeded this way, but I can say that the center had some impact on their life.
In ’69, ‘70 the people there were just taking what came at them, and were just set on shorter lives. I think we were in the beginning of showing that while race and poverty are reflected in the numbers, that blacks are more likely to be in poverty than whites, that that doesn’t have to be.
What are your thoughts about relationship between healthcare and civil rights today?
We’ve done some good, but not good enough. Am I satisfied? Absolutely not! Health has to be a civil right: how healthy your life is not just about treating presenting illness; you have to talk about health in terms of quality of life and life span. There is so much more to be done. I believe we’ve had some setbacks, but I still believe that there will be real change; I may not live to see it, but hopefully, my 12-year-old granddaughter will.