WEST HELENA — I arrived in West Helena on Thursday June l0, 1965 about 2pm in the afternoon. After a short period of getting acquainted, I took off with another worker to do some voter registration canvassing. While I was visiting people to talk with them about registering to vote, I got some first impressions of the city of West Helena. The street we worked on was unpaved. The houses were mostly unpainted three- room shacks, with 8 or more people living in them. A large ditch running along the side of the road separated the "sidewalk" from the "street." It was very hot so most of the people who were home were sitting on their porches. There was dearth of shade trees and no grass at all.
Negroes in Arkansas have been able to register and vote as long as they paid a one dollar poll tax. Many of the people I met that day have never been registered, however. We seemed to frighten some people, especially the older ones, others told us they hadn't registered before because they had not been able to afford the poll tax. A few seemed uninterested and our explanations of the new law did not seem to make a difference.
In November 1964, the Arkansas electorate voted to end the poll tax. A dollar does not seem to be much to have to pay to register, but the more I talked to people, the more I could see how prohibitive the poll tax has been. In order to register in the past the people have had to go to the sheriff's office, now voter registration takes place at the office of the county clerk in the court house.
Many people we spoke with seemed visibly relieved to learn they do not have to go to the sheriff's office to register. In spite of the ease, (compared to Mississippi) people are worried and frightened about going down to register. People are concerned about their jobs, their homes and the welfare of their children. They know that a woman in the community was forced to move because she and her family had been friendly to a white SNCC worker this spring.
The Westside Voter's League, our sponsors here in West Helena, are becoming more and more effective, Local people who aren't afraid to take stands for what they believe and who work to make it possible for SNCC to be here find a vehicle in the activities of the League. The Voter's League sponsored a Freedom Day about two weeks ago during which members used their cars to take people to the court house so they could register. They also went from door to door to encourage people to go out to register. The League sponsors our community center, taking an active part in helping us work out problems like how to get shelves for the center library, distributing clothing from the north and making arrangements with the city government for use of vacant property as a playground. A special committee meets once a week to work out some of these problems.
The Westside Voter's League has initiated conversations with the mayor of West Helena about some of the problems that exist in the community. Groups have spoken to the mayor about the need for more outdoor recreational areas for the Negro people, Negro policemen in the community and equal job opportunity. A committee is now planning to contact individual businessmen in the community about making more jobs available to us on an equal basis.
We turn to the Voter's League for help in raising bail money, for help to furnish the house we rented and for places to put up people who visit the project when there is no more space in the Freedom House. This Sunday the Westside Voter's League is giving a Family Feast in honor of all the SNCC workers in the state. We are expecting about 40 workers in town and Jim Jones, the SNCC Project Director, will be giving a talk.
I've spent a good bit of time helping to organize and run the Community Center. We have four people working in the center: three full time and I am in and out now that our schedule has been settled. We spent the first two weeks getting the feel of what a center meant in this community. We registered over 100 children by the end of the first week. Programs are now running for children and adults.
The five to seven year olds come to the center each morning. Children from 8 to 11 and teenagers have friendship clubs. Classes in Negro history, arithmetic, Arkansas Politics and arts and crafts are held for children and teenagers.
Our teenagers are a great group. They run the program for the five to seven year olds in the mornings, taking responsibility for planning activities with the children and carrying them out. The teenagers are also our militants. When one of their group was asked to go to the rear door of a restaurant to be served, they decided that a group needed to go and test the place — We WERE SERVED. Next we went to the local "private club" swimming pool. We didn't get in, but we did have a great time watching all of the white folks leave when they closed the pool because we were there. The adults in the Westside Voter's League are following through on the pool business with complaints and negotiations in the city of Helena. Next the teenagers are planning to go to the movie in town that seats us upstairs and the white folks downstairs.
Adult programs at the center include classes in reading and writing, arithmetic, Arkansas politics and Negro history. I am teaching Negro history. We spend about half of our period talking. The concerns of the group seem to grow out of the lesson and at the same time are the cause of what we are studying. At the last session, one lady said that she saw no difference in the "Freedom of Choice" school integration plan and the methodical way African families were split when they were first brought to this country.
The "Freedom of Choice" plan means that Negro children of this county in the 1st, 4th, 7th and 10th grades can choose to go to the white school this fall. Because the Negro school is so inadequate the people realize there really is no choice.
They have written letters of protest individually and the West Side Voter's League has sent a petition to the Office of Education in Washington, D.C. to protest the plan. In the discussion it was brought out that the way the plan has been set up it could actually serve to discourage the children from making the transfer to the white school because there would be so few Negroes in the completely new and hostile environment of the white school.
[See Massive Evasion of School Integration for more information on "Freedom of Choice" plans.
Two exciting programs at the center are group singing and discussions. The children really are a singing group. It happens that two of us have guitars and that makes for great fun leading songs. Discussions are more difficult. People are used to saying what they think will be approved of. They tend to shy away from things that are controversial or call for a personal opinion that needs to be backed up. Many feel that if one cannot say something good, he shouldn't say anything at all. This attitude is very obvious in the children and they are surprised and pleased to get the feeling that you really want to hear what they think. Once they can feel that though — they can begin to talk.
The adults are much more cautious and it is not difficult to see the worry on their faces. There are people in the community who carry information over to the White Town and in a couple of instances people have been intimidated as a result. A local school teacher was recently advised by a member of the department of education to stay away from meetings of the Westside Voter's League. In any case, our smaller meetings are the most productive. People get a chance to practice hearing themselves and get to know that their ideas are good ones which are helpful to others as well. Already the people who talk in the smaller discussions are feeling freer about saying what they think in the meetings of the Westside Voter's League.
Copyright © Myrtle Glascoe, 1965
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