by Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
An activist, writer, and newspaper publisher, Daisy Bates was a leading champion for civil rights during the height of the movement in the United States. A bold and committed organizer, she dedicated her entire adult life to fighting for racial equality and justice – even in the face of numerous threats against her life. Motivated by a tragic event in her own life, Bates overcame discrimination and her own personal struggle with anger to become a powerful force for good and an inspiring leader for human rights. Although she achieved a great deal in her life time, Daisy Bates is best known for her involvement in the campaign to end racial segregation in public schools throughout Little Rock, Arkansas. Her efforts inspired people nationwide and sparked a major transformation that would test America’s commitment to racial equality and the rule of law.
TRAGEDY AND REDEMPTION
Daisy Lee Gatson Bates was born on November 11th, 1914 in southern Arkansas to John Gatson, a lumber worker, and Millie Riley. But before she even had a chance to start life, tragedy struck the family when Bates was still only several months old. Her mother, Millie, was attacked, raped and murdered by three local white men, and her was body dumped into a nearby pond. However, because the men were white and Daisy’s mother was black, local police showed little interest in solving the case, and nothing was ever done about it. At the time, this was fairly common, as African-Americans were still widely treated as second-class citizens, with minimal legal protections.
Not long afterwards, Daisy’s father decided it was no longer safe for him to remain in the state. So he left Daisy with a close friend of the family, and he left Arkansas, never to be seen again. As a result, Daisy Bates was raised by Orlee Smith, a World War 1 veteran, and his wife Susie. Although Daisy was just several months old at the time, she would later learn about the event and it would forever change her view of the world she lived in.
Daisy Bates grew up and went on to attend segregated public schools, where she experienced firsthand the substandard conditions under which black students were educated. Discrimination was a daily part of life for her growing up in the south, and this caused her to start feeling a deep-seated anger toward white people, who seemed to be universally unjust. When she was eight years old, she finally learned of the terrible fate of her biological mother, and of the fact that no one had ever done anything to bring the men responsible to justice. This lack of concern for her mother’s untimely death, as well as the daily injustice she faced living in the south, fueled her growing rage – bordering on hatred – and she became determined to find the men who killed her mother. Daisy Bates felt that the only way she would get justice was if she took the case on herself.
Years later, Bates was convinced she found one of the murderers, a local man who was known to be a heavy drinker. For months she pursued him, subtly harassing him, hoping he would confess and admit what he had done. Eventually, he died of alcohol poisoning, but he never fully confessed. Bates continued searching for the other two men, although they were never found. Nevertheless, her growing hatred was beginning to take its toll, and her adopted father grew increasingly worried about her. On his death bed, he urged her to move past her anger and find a way to move forward with her life.
“You’re filled with hatred,” he told her. “Hate can destroy you, Daisy. Don’t hate white people just because they’re white. If you hate, make it count for something. Hate the humiliations we are living under in the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the soul of every black man and woman. Hate the insults hurled at us, and then try to do something about it, or your hate won’t spell a thing.”
These powerful and inspiring words took root in her heart, and helped Bates overcome her hatred and start focusing on ways to make a positive impact. They were words that she would remember for the rest of her life; words that would guide her in her life-long campaign for civil rights. Eventually, she became determined to stop looking backwards and to channel her energies into becoming a leader.
A CRUSADE IS BORN
Daisy Bates was still only a teenager when her adoptive father died, and she deeply missed the man she had come to admire and love. On the other hand, she did not get along well with her adoptive mother, who often punished her harshly. The two grew apart over time, and when Bates left home, she did not keep in touch.
In early 1941, at the age of twenty-five, Bates married Lucius Bates, a former newspaper man turned salesman that she had met years before. The couple soon moved to Little Rock, AK, where they decided to indulge a dream of theirs: to publish their own newspaper. With his experience, and her enthusiasm, the Arkansas State Press was launched, a weekly statewide, African-American newspaper that had its very first issue printed and distributed on May 9th, 1941. The publication was an advocacy newspaper, modeled on other African-American journals of the time, such as The Chicago Defender and The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
Although no longer driven by anger and hostility, Daisy Bates was still fueled with a fiery passion for social justice. The paper served as a platform for Bates and her husband to speak out against racial discrimination. At the time, it became a leading voice for civil rights, even before the movement had become nationally recognized. Each week the front page featured a story about racial injustice in Arkansas, with an urgent request for social change, such as desegregation, economic equality, and legal justice.
As the newspaper’s readership grew in size, Bates found herself becoming more directly involved in the official movement for civil rights. In fact, not long after moving to Little Rock, Daisy Bates became a member of the NAACP’s Little Rock chapter. When Bates was younger, her adoptive father had been a member, and he often brought back literature from group meetings. Reading them, she found herself inspired, and when the opportunity came, she did not hesitate to join. In 1952, at the age of thirty-eight, she was elected to serve as the chapter’s president, a position she held until 1970. Being in a position of such influence had its advantages in pushing for civil rights, but it also had its drawbacks. Bates’ safety was often threatened because of who she was and what she was trying to accomplish.
“As President of the NAACP State Conference of Branches and as the publicized leader of the integration movement in Arkansas, I was singled out for ‘special treatment,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Two flaming crosses were burned on our property. The first, a six-foot gasoline-soaked structure, was stuck into our front lawn just after dusk. At the base of the cross was scrawled: ‘GO BACK TO AFRICA! KKK.’ The second cross was placed against the front of our house, lit, and the flames began to catch. Fortunately, the fire was discovered by a neighbor and we extinguished it before any serious damage had been done.”
Nevertheless, despite facing danger and blatant racism nearly every day of her professional life, Daisy Bates refused to back down. As Little Rock’s NAACP president and co-publisher of the Arkansas State Press, she understood the importance of her position and continued to play a crucial role in the fight to end segregation and racial injustice.
HELPING THE LITTLE ROCK NINE
In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the social policy of racial segregation unconstitutional in the landmark case known as Brown. vs. the Board of Education. Nationwide, African-American students were hopeful they would finally be able to attend integrated schools, with all of the economic and educational resources that came with it. But even with the law now on their side, when black students tried to enroll in traditionally white schools, they were turned away, or even threatened with violence. Despite the clear decision of the Supreme Court, officials in local school systems refused to comply. Frustrated by the lack of compliance, Daisy Bates and her husband decided to carefully chronicle these events in their newspaper, hoping to raise awareness throughout their community and beyond.
In communities throughout the United States, the intransigence of local school systems became the norm for several years. Eventually, however, one case was to determine which side would ultimately win: the case of the Little Rock Nine.
Two years after the 1954 ruling, when no progress had been made in integrating black and white students, the Supreme Court ordered the integration of schools by September 1957. The first test case took place in the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, where Daisy Bates and her husband had made their home. When nine black students were selected to enter Little Rock Central High School, Bates decided she would become actively involved. With so much at stake in this case, it would not be enough to simply report on the story. Instead, Bates decided she would be there with the students every step of the way, acting as their adviser to ensure their safety and success.
From the very first day (September 2, 1957), the students – who became known as the “Little Rock Nine” – were met with hostility. Hundreds of local white residents gathered in front of the school and threatened to kill the black students if they attempted to enter the building. The angry crowd tried to physically keep the students from getting into the high school.
In open defiance of the Supreme Court, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, called in the Arkansas National Guard and ordered them to prevent the nine black students from entering the building. The guards stood by the school doors and only allowed white students inside. As a result, the Little Rock Nine were unable to get into the school. Eventually, they were forced to leave and head back home. For nearly 3 weeks, the Governor successfully defended the state’s segregationist policies, defying the Supreme Court, considered the highest court in the nation. In the meantime, Bates and the students explored a range of remedies, trying to figure out the best way around the impasse.
Then, on September 20th (a Friday), a federal court judge directly ordered that Governor Faubus remove the National Guard from school grounds. Fuabus complied, but local residents were furious and vowed to block the nine black students themselves. On September 23rd, (the following Monday), an angry mob of more than 1,000 white residents gathered in front of the school, determined to keep the Little Rock Nine from entering the building.
In response, Daisy Bates came up with the clever idea of having local religious leaders accompany the Little Rock Nine, feeling that men of God would not be attacked by the angry crowd. She believed they would keep the children protected from violence and would get them inside the school safely. With two ministers in front of the children, and two behind them, they walked together in a group and managed to get the students inside Central High. But even with this first task completed, the battle was not yet over. White students at the high school harassed the Little Rock Nine throughout the day and threatened to kill them, if they did not leave.
The school’s superintendent, concerned about the growing mayhem on school grounds, dismissed school that day. Local police were called in to escort the children out of the building for their own safety. Reporters from all over the country came to Little Rock, and soon the incident became a major news event in media outlets nationwide. While the Little Rock Nine were anxious and disappointed, Bates felt they had won a major victory, just by getting them into the building. And she believed they could build on that to gain greater access in the days ahead.
Watching news footage of the event, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the behavior of local whites “disgraceful” and decided to step in and take charge of the situation. He sent 1200 members of the widely respected 101st Airborne Division to keep the peace and maintain order. He also placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal control, so they could not be used by locals to block his executive actions. Eisenhower ordered them all to work together to maintain order and ensure that integration proceeded smoothly and without incident.
The next day, the Little Rock Nine were escorted into the school by United States Army, causing local residents to step aside. However, while they were able to enter the school building successfully, they were still being harassed throughout the day by many of the white students inside the school.
In response, Daisy Bates joined the local parent-teacher association so she could be more involved with what happened to the students during the day while attending classes. She even used her own home as headquarters for the effort to integrate Arkansas schools. Bates felt she need to be directly and heavily involved in order to succeed and ensure the safety of the Little Rock nine. While some activists were somewhat discouraged by the continued resistance, Bates felt like they were winning major victories every day students were able to walk into the building. She noted that the courts and the President of the United States were on their side.
Since Daisy Bates used her own house as a safe haven for the Little Rock Nine (a pick up and drop off point), it also became a target for local white supremacists. Numerous acts of violence and vandalism were carried out against her house and property. Their goal was to scare Bates into giving up her cause. But none of this discouraged Bates from her goal of equal education for all.
Looking back on the first full year of school, Daisy Bates saw their efforts as a major victory for civil rights. Speaking of the Little Rock Nine she said: “They got in. And they remained there for the full year. And that opened a lot of doors that had been closed to Negroes, because this was the first time that this kind of revolution had succeeded without a doubt. And none of the children were really hurt physically.”
Bates had her spirits bolstered by a letter directly from Martin Luther King Jr., who encouraged her to “adhere rigorously to a way of non-violence,” as she and the students faced continuous threats and taunts from local residents. King also inspired her to stay strong by adding, “World opinion is with you. The moral conscience of millions of white Americans is with you.” In fact, when King visited Alabama, Bates was asked to speak at the Arkansas AM&N College commencement. She accepted, and ended up not only speaking there, but at Dexter Avenue Baptist church later in the year.
Nevertheless, local white officials were equally determined to resist. In the following school year (1958-1959), Little Rock shut down its entire public school system in a final last-ditch effort to get around integration policy, throwing the entire process into turmoil. For local students, this became known as “the lost year.” While this set back the push for school integration, it did not end it. Over the next year, the local community engaged in intense political battles to fight for control of the school board. But in the end, the integrationists won the day, and the school system opened again in August of 1959, with black students allowed to attend. This was a major victory for the civil rights movement, and it helped to set in motion a wave of similar achievements in communities throughout the nation.
“The perseverance of Mrs. Bates and the Little Rock Nine during these turbulent years sent a strong message throughout the South that desegregation worked and the tradition of racial segregation under “Jim Crow” would no longer be tolerated in the United States of America.” [website for the Daisy Bates House]
However, these victories came with a price. Because of her involvement with desegregation, the newspaper that Daisy Bates started with her husband lost many advertisers. Eventually, the losses were large enough that they were forced to shut down the paper. In 1960, Bates moved to New York City where she wrote her memoir, “The Long Shadow of Little Rock,” which won a National Book Award when it was re-published later in 1988.
With her memoir behind her, and with integration now becoming more widespread, Bates moved to Washington D.C. to tackle other issues. She worked for the Democratic National Committee and worked with President Lyndon Johnson on his anti-poverty programs. When she suffered a stroke in 1965, however, she left Washington and returned to Arkansas to recuperate.
After regaining her health, Daisy Bates spent the remainder of her days helping with community-improvement programs, such as new sewer systems, paved streets, water systems, and establishing or repairing community centers. In 1984, several years after her husband passed away, Bates re-opened the Arkansas State Press, which lasted for another four years before closing for good in 1988.
Always looking to help others, Bates remained involved in numerous community organizations, and even won several awards and honors for her community activity, especially for her contribution to helping to racially integrate school systems. She continued to be active until she died on November 4th, 1999.
A few of the many awards Bates was honored with are: the 1957 Woman of the Year Award by the National Council of Negro Women; the 1984 Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women; and the Congressional Gold Medal, posthumously awarded by President Bill Clinton along with other members of The Little Rock Nine in November 1999. Perhaps the most significant and rewarding recognition came in 1987 when an elementary school in Little Rock was renamed the Daisy Bates Elementary School in her honor.
By the time Daisy Bates had passed away, the civil rights movement had won many victories for African-Americans, and she had much to be proud of for her involvement in bringing about a reformed America. Although her commitment to improving society was expressed in many ways, Bates will always be remembered most for being a guiding force behind one of the biggest and most important battles for school integration in United States history.
“Surely the world we live in,” Daisy Bates once wrote, “is but the world that lives in us.”