The United People’s Co-Op in Mississippi County, Arkansas, 1969.

Lee County

One of the surviving cooperatives from Arkansas’s early VISTA days, the Lee County Cooperative Clinic.

Several months ago this column featured some research on the history and origins of the regional organization, ARVAC and the larger, national VISTA program that helped to create programs such as ARVAC. Created in 1965, the VISTA program was part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Throughout the state, Arkansans were experiencing intense poverty, especially in rural areas. Many were suffering form treatable illnesses resulting from malnutrition and health care was often inaccessible.

Operating much like a domestic version of the Peace Corp, volunteers in the VISTA program received a subsistence wage and lived in economically poor areas where they worked in partnership with community members to generate economic initiatives and aid residents in gaining access to health care, housing, and adequate food. It wasn’t about charity but rather about addressing problems that led to the need for charity. Writing in the introduction to the book In Service to America: A History of VISTA in Arkansas 1965-1985, author Marvin Schwartz explains, “This was part of the plan—to have the anti-poverty change agents on the same economic level as the people being served, living among them and seeing the world from their perspective.”

Many of these initiatives still exist today, including the local organization ARVAC and the well-known Lee County Cooperative Clinic located in Marianna, which is often cited throughout the south as one of the best models of community-based health care. Other initiatives, often deemed too controversial, didn’t last long and soon collapsed under economic and political pressure and /or lack of resources. Despite their short-lived existence, they offer enlightening examples of what people can achieve when they agree to work together. Learning more about both the successes and shortcomings of these former organizations can help us develop a strategy for solving today’s problems, many of which aren’t really that different from those our state faced in the late 1960s.

In 1969 three groups in the Mississippi County towns of Birdsong, Burdette, and Osceola came together to create the United People’s Co-Operative, which served low-income community members in both the white and black communities.  As an organization, they sought to attack what they saw at the root problems of poverty in the region. Granting community members access to land and resources, the organization succeeded in creating buying clubs and used acres of land for cultivation. Together co-op members purchased farm equipment and began initiatives that brought food and steady employment to many low-income community members. The co-op lasted for five years before being squelched by members of the white business community and the local press who printed stories accusing the co-op of being a “socialist program.”

Author Marvin Schwartz spoke with former co-op volunteers about the attacks on the organization and the complex internal dynamics, both of which also led to the co-ops demise. Speaking about his conversation with co-op farm manager Robert Johnson, Schwartz writes, “The problem, as he saw it, was that the co-op board members had become middle class, were no longer poor people, and they made decisions only to benefit themselves.” Unable to recover from both outside attacks and internal strife, the co-op ended in 1975.

Although I haven’t been able to find much information as of yet, there was a short-lived housing co-op started in Dardanelle around the same time.   Serving the African American community, this co-op was organized by a white woman named Betty Burnet who came to work in Dardanelle in 1965. Do you happen to know anything about this co-op or the whereabouts of Betty Burnett? I’d love learn more. You can visit me online and read previous columns about the VISTA program in Arkansas at . Thanks so much for reading!

More on VISTA and ARVAC from the Boiled Down Juice:

“ARVAC, VISTA, folk arts and the War on Poverty in Arkansas” 

“Violet Sory and the ARVAC Ozark Crafts Co-op.”


The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. Written by Boiled Down Juice editor, Meredith Martin-Moats, this weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.