Daisy Bates: Life, Legacy and the American Dreamby Jacky Jasper
In Honor of Black History month, HSK will daily highlight a person, place, or moment that was significant for the progress and development of American culture and values….
Henry Blair is one of those people.
Daisy Lee Gatson Bates (November 11, 1914 – November 4, 1999) was an American civil rights activist, publisher and writer who played a leading role in the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957.
Bates was raised by Orle and Susie Smith, whom she believed to be her birth parents for many years. In “The Death of my Mother,” Bates recounted learning as a child that her birth mother had been sexually assaulted and murdered by three local white men. Her father left the family shortly after her mother’s death and left her in the care of his closest friends.
At the age of 15, Daisy became the object of an older man’s attention. L.C. Bates, an insurance salesman who had also worked on newspapers in the South and West. L.C. dated her for several years, and they married in 1942, living in Little Rock. The Bates decided to act on a dream of theirs, to run their own newspaper, leasing a printing plant that belonged to a church publication and inaugurating the Arkansas State Press. The first issue appeared on May 9, 1941. The paper became an avid voice for civil rights even before a nationally recognized movement had emerged.
In 1952, Daisy Bates was elected president of the Arkansas Conference of NAACP branches.
Bates and her husband were important figures in the Little Rock Integration Crisis in 1957. The Bates published a local black newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, which publicized violations of the Supreme Court’s desegregation rulings. Bates guided and advised the nine students, known as the Little Rock Nine, when they attempted to enroll at Little Rock Central High School, a previously all white school, in 1957. The students’ attempts to enroll provoked a confrontation with Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who called out the National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school. White mobs met at the school, threatening to kill the black students; these mobs harassed not only activists but also northern journalists who came to cover the story. Bates was a pivotal figure in that seminal moment of the civil rights movement. As a publisher and journalist, she was also a witness and advocate on a larger scale. In 1998, a spokeswoman for Ms. Bates stated that she had always felt guilty for her role in the Little Rock Central High School event since it had been her responsibility to notify one of the young ladies that they were delaying the entrance into Central High School. The family of the child had no phone and the father did not return from work until 3 in the morning. Ms. Bates fell asleep before she was able to deliver the message to the family and the girl attempted to attend her first day at the segregated school alone.
The city council instructed the Little Rock police chief to arrest Bates and other NAACP officials; she and the local branch president surrendered voluntarily. They were charged with failing to provide information about members for the public record, in violation of a city ordinance. Though Bates was charged a fine by the judge, NAACP lawyers appealed and eventually won a reversal in the United States Supreme Court.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower intervened by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and dispatching the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to ensure that the court orders were enforced.
Their involvement in the Little Rock Crisis resulted in the loss of much advertising revenue to their newspaper and it was forced to close in 1959. In 1960, Daisy Bates moved to New York City and wrote her memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, which won a 1988 National Book Award.
Then Bates moved to Washington, D.C. and worked for the Democratic National Committee. She also served in the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson working on anti-poverty programs. In 1965, she suffered a stroke and returned to Little Rock.
In 1968 she moved to the rural black community of Mitchellville, Desha County, Arkansas. She concentrated on improving the lives of her neighbors by establishing a self-help program which was responsible for new sewer systems, paved streets, a water system, and community center.
Bates revived the Arkansas State Press in the 1980s after L.C. Bates, her husband, died in 1980.
In 1986 the University of Arkansas Press republished The Long Shadow of Little Rock, which became the first reprinted edition ever to earn an American Book Award. The following year she sold the newspaper, but continued to act as a consultant. Little Rock paid perhaps the ultimate tribute, not only to Bates but to the new era she helped initiate, by opening the Daisy Bates Elementary School and by making the third Monday in February “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” an official state holiday.
Bates died in Little Rock, Arkansas on November 4, 1999.