Page 21


local officials, businessmen, ministers. To most people, though, we were something to look at and wonder about. A rumor went around that we had syphilis. The mayor called the county health official and asked him to check on it. When we were seen having a bi-racial party, harrassment began. There were threatening phone calls made to the women. Kids in the neighborhood knocked on windows and doors at night. The women ceased having black people come over to the house and the trouble ceased. I remember being surprised at how mild and even reasonable the local officials sounded. I was used to the blunt gaucherie of Texas public officials, but an Arkansas politician is a horse of a different color. He is a master of seeming to agree with you and picks up every nuance of your reaction to what he says. Therefore, one soon learns not to take seriously what he seems to be saying. I went one step further and played the game they played with me. I seemed to agree and to approve of whatever they said. By the time I left Arkansas I could no more think of expressing my real opinion on any subject to towns people than I would consider wearing what I pleased or living as I wanted. I learned to pretend and hide; so does every Vista in the small town south who must come into frequent contact with the local whites. The habit of distrusting people is hard to unlearn. I remember the shock of coming into contact with a liberal minister, a person of sensitivity and intelligence, and not being able to open up. Local Arkansas officials tolerate Vistas I believe because they are associated with the government which means associated with federal funds and because they are channeled through a mixture of CAP pressure and local circumstances into trivial projects. On the other hand, they have heard of outside agitators and keep close tabs. During the summer we were given regular police reconnaissance. Our phone was bugged, a crude job, as if they were saying, “We just want you to know we’re listening.” Later on in northern Arkansas the long distance operators referred all my calls to a special person called “Vista operator 25.” The official paranoia feeds the pretentions of many Vistas and so is an important factor in maintaining morale. The reasoning is: They think I’m dangerous, so I am. T HE POOR I came in contact with were exclusively Negro. Training had led me to expect a rough response, particularly from the younger Negroes. But, from the first, the Negroes I met walking around the black section of town were friendly and easy to talk to. We began throwing a football around with some of the adolescents every evening. They were curious about us and what we were there to do, seemingly neither distrustful or cynical. People waved at us as we made our way around their neighborhoods. It took me a long time to realize that their friendliness was no more genuine than the politicians’ interest in poverty. I noticed eventually that, except for a couple of the college students, no one ever offered any opinion of their own on anything. They let me take the lead and echoed back to me whatever I said. Nothing I said or did affected the distrust \(dislike? Probably, but it was never “We treat you like any other white man.” In the seven months I was in Arkansas, only one Negro adult spoke to me in what I believed was an honest way, and this only after several months of daily contact with him. It took me several months to realize at what distance the Negroes I saw and worked with kept me. The motive behind such behavior is fear. The Negroes in the towns where I lived police, of losing their jobs, of whites in general. They were afraid to make requests to the city council much less make demands \(I have mentioned the exception of the one small black community I had It is fear that makes community organization practically Negroes know that if they make waves they can be harrassed with impunity. They know that the police are a law unto themselves. Under these conditions the best policy appears to be to avoid notice and endure. For towns like the ones I worked in change substantially, . the minority of decent minded whites must begin the process. Once they are organized to see that Negroes have the protection of the law it will be possible for Negroes to organize and speak up. Then it will be possible for Negroes to exert pressure corresponding to their numbers and needs. White Vistas would do better to spend their time bringing whites together rather than making doomed attempts to organize Negroes, who do not trust them and are not ready to run the risks of political action. IT WAS A task finding enough to do, a task that in time defeats most Vistas. I spent three months in southern Arkansas attempting to get an area annexed to do the town \(for the purpose of getting finding people needing emergency food help, and transporting people here and there. For a while I was busy enough, though hardly overworked. My co-worker gave up trying to make work for himself after an indecently brief time. He took to his sound system, solitaire, and hourly visits to the post office. Occasionally, he had creative inspirations about possible projects, but they cooled quickly when he remembered our lack of resources and the local situation. At the height of despair the neighboring CAP came to the rescue. We were presented with instructions to organize seven more areas in the manner of the two earlier described. The CAP director’s idea was that we should have four meetings in each of the seven areas by the middle of October so that the regional CAP evaluation team would judge our county to be “organized.” Vistas in two other counties were presented with the same demands. Naturally, we were all infurated. My co-worker was energized and became one of the leaders in the struggle of principles that took place in the next few weeks. He wrote position papers on what a Vista does and demolished the CAP in fine rhetoric for its willingness to sacrifice the poor for its own sake. \(I noticed the tendency of everyone Vistas, the CAP officials, Vista regional staff to talk about the poor or the people as if they were of one mind and voice, allied with the speaker against CAP ensued which took up large hunks of everyone’s time. We were in our element: Vistas vs. The Establishment. A melodramatic confrontation with the CAP board occurred. The situation was patched over and left hanging. For several resaons, most of the Vistas I knew or knew of did little or nothing. First, it was hard to find something to do. One had to make work and struggle to keep busy. The course of least resistance was to acquiesce in a deadening leisure. Second, most efforts of real substance met with failure. There were formidable obstacles to any undertaking of importance; for example, the difficulty of finding resources or in finding leaders among Negroes. Once a volunteer experienced a failure which reduced months of work to nothing, he usually found it difficult to re-generate enthusiasm. Third, most things one could do were pretty trivial, e.g. tutoring programs, checking prices in neighborhood grocery stores. Vista attracts serious, idealistic young men and women. Most want to do some work they believe to be of real social importance. In a choice between the trivial and nothing, nothing wins. Fourth, there is a lack of good supervision, of supervisors with ideas for projects or with help in overcoming the inevitable difficulties. The supervisors I knew of considered themselves either disciplinarians or morale boosters. They had no ideas. Fifth, training leads volunteers to expect to do community organizing that they will not be able to do. Most Vistas I knew who worked at something considered themselves failures. The best Vistas I saw were people with a talent for hustling up resources. One person, through clever manipulation and a knowledge of the ins and outs of federal legislation, raised S40,000 for a day care center. Two others in eastern Arkansas 12 The Texas Observer