Today we will visit with Daisy Lee Gaston Bates.
Daisy Bates is best known for her involvement in the struggle to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. As an advisor to nine black students trying to attend a previously all-white school, she 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. Her memoir of the conflict, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, is a primary text in the history of American race relations. Bates endured numerous hardships, but in the ensuing years her unstinting labors on behalf of equality opportunity have earned her numerous laurels.
She was born Daisy Lee Gatson in Huttig, a tiny Arkansas town dominated by a sawmill. “Huttig might have been called a sawmill plantation,” she maintained in her book, “for everyone worked for the mill, lived in houses owned by the mill, and traded at the general store run by the mill.” Growing up there, “I knew I was a Negro, but I did not really understand what that meant until I was seven years old.” At that time, she went to buy some meat for her mother at a store and was rudely snubbed by the butcher. “Niggers have to wait ’til I wait on the white people,” he brusquely informed her.
The incident had a strong impact on young Daisy, but her rage at discrimination turned to horror when she learned, somewhat later, that the parents she had known all her life were in reality friends of her real parents; her mother, it turned out, had been murdered while resisting rape by three white men. The men were never brought to justice, and Daisy’s real father left town. “Young as I was, strange as it may seem,” she wrote, “my life now had a secret goal — to find the men who had done this horrible thing to my mother. So happy once, now I was like a little sapling which, after a violent storm, puts out only gnarled and twisted branches.”
At the age of 15, Daisy became the object of an older man’s attentions. L. C. Bates, an insurance salesman who had also worked on newspapers in the South and West. L. C. wooed her for several years, and they married in 1942, setting up housekeeping in Little Rock. Though the low pay and lack of job security had been a constant for him as a journalist, he longed to leave the insurance business and run his own newspaper. The Bateses decided to act on this dream, 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, and enjoyed a substantial readership — and thus a healthy flow of advertising revenue. The paper regularly published articles that reported and condemned police brutality against black citizens, and took up the cause of black veterans of World War II, who met with harassment and violence — sometimes even murder — upon returning to the South. Yet the paper’s fearless editorializing on the subject of a black serviceman’s slaying at the hands of a white police officer upset local whites, especially area business owners. Faced with a sudden loss of advertising money, the paper appeared poised to disappear. “The picture was discouraging,” Daisy recalled in her memoir. “So much so that I was tempted to pack up and leave Little Rock.” Even so, she and her husband “decided to stick to our guns.”
The State Press continued to publish pieces attacking police brutality. “The Negroes supposedly fighting a war in the name of freedom had through our paper found a voice to express their feelings,” she asserted. Henceforth, emboldened by the support of readers and bolder advertisers, the paper “expanded its crusading role on an ever widening front. It fought to free negroes from muddy, filthy streets, slum housing, menial jobs, and injustice in the courtrooms.” Thanks in part to such crusading, conditions in Little Rock improved for a time, and it “actually began to gain a reputation as a liberal southern city.” In 1945, the State Press was able to buy new printing equipment.
Daisy attended classes at nearby Shorter College in business administration, public relations, and “other subjects related to the newspaper field.” She also studied for a time at Philander Smith College. Though she loved flying and took classes at a flight school, Daisy was forced to give up this hobby when it adversely affected her insurance premiums. She served as the paper’s editor- in-chief during L. C.’s vacation, and both before and after his return continued to pursue controversial stories. A 1946 piece about a labor dispute, which sided with striking workers and criticized a local judge, led to their arrest and conviction on contempt of court. The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned the conviction.
After the war, throngs of black soldiers returned to the South, facing discrimination, harassment, and violence. Bates noted in her book that brutality against returning soldiers was a great motivator in the growth of the civil rights movement and that membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) grew radically during this period. L. C. and Daisy Bates had been members virtually since their arrival in Little Rock; in 1952, Daisy became the leader of the state conference of NAACP branches. She was already cochairing the state conference’s Committee on Fair Employment Practices but took to her new duties with aplomb. Two years later, in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional; the decision was sparked by a multitude of lawsuits filed against segregated schools and coordinated by the NAACP.
“To the nation’s Negroes,” Daisy Bates observed in her book, “the Supreme Court decision meant that the time for delay, evasion, or procrastination was over.” Although acting governor Francis A. Cherry expressed his intention to comply with the law, he was defeated in 1954 by an avid segregationist — Orval Faubus, who vowed resistance to federal mandates on the issue. But Daisy Bates and other activists, who had long watched black studies languish in inferior schools while all-white schools enjoyed infinitely greater resources, determined to press the issue. Nine black students were slated to attend Little Rock’s Central High; they became the focal point for one of the most intense chapters of the civil rights movement.
Despite all legislative efforts by the segregationists to prevent the “Little Rock Nine,” as the students were known, from attending Central High, the school’s integration was slated to begin in the fall of 1957. Daisy Bates became their advisor and protector. 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. Soon, Bates recollected, “hysteria in all of its madness enveloped the city. Racial feelings were at a fever pitch.”
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. In such a charged environment, of course, publicizing such information would have endangered the members in question. Though Bates was charged a fine by the judge, and NAACP lawyers appealed and eventually won a reversal in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite such provisional victories, the physical safety of Bates, the students, and other activists was constantly threatened. “It took many weeks for me to become accustomed to seeing revolvers lying on tables in my own home,” she remembered in The Long Shadow of Little Rock. “And shotguns, loaded with buckshot, standing ready near the doors.” The students endured constant intimidation, and Bates saw herself hanged in effigy by segregationists. She was later threatened in her car by a white man, and bombs were thrown at the Bates house. The U.S. government answered her desperate telegrams by explaining that such incidents were a matter for local authorities.
Ultimately, the “Little Rock Nine” were able to attend Central High, and many of them went on to impressive careers. The price for L. C. and Daisy Bates was high, however; an orchestrated boycott of advertisers caused the newspaper’s revenue to dry up quickly, and they were forced to shut it down in 1959. L. C. accepted an NAACP post the following year, which he retained until his retirement in 1971. Daisy, meanwhile, traveled to New York and spent two years writing her book. It was published in 1962 with a foreword by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “This is a book which I hope will be read by every American,” Roosevelt declared; adding in her conclusion that the volume “should shock the conscience of America and bring a realization of where we stand in the year 1962 in these United States.”
Daisy Bates moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for the Democratic National Committee. She participated in the anti-poverty programs of the Lyndon Johnson administration but was incapacitated by a stroke in 1965. The following year saw her donate a number of her papers, photographs, and other historical documents from the Little Rock crisis to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
In 1968 she moved to the town of Mitchellville, Arkansas, living in a mobile home and participating in a number of efforts to improve living conditions for the area’s mostly black residents. As a result of her tireless work with the city’s Self-Help Project, new water and sewer systems were installed in the town, roads were paved and a community center — with swimming pool — was completed in 1972. When budget cuts by President Richard Nixon threatened the project, she protested bitterly. She retired two years later.
L. C. Bates died in 1980, but Daisy held out hope that the State Press would circulate once more. At last, in 1984, this longtime dream became a reality. “I said to myself, ‘If you’re going to do it, do it now or forget it,'” she told Ebony. “One of the reasons I hadn’t done it is I didn’t have enough money on my own to finance it.” A satisfactory arrangement was made in collaboration with School Superintendent Dr. H. Benjamin Williams and the Rev. Robert Willingham. This partnership — which gave her two-thirds ownership — allowed the paper to buy a new typesetting machine. The paper’s first run sold out. “It’s been fantastic, an awakening to me,” she exclaimed. “And we are trying to address new issues. We’re even getting requests from Vietnam veterans who want us to help them.” One of the “Little Rock Nine,” Ernest Green, served as the paper’s national marketing director; he had previously held a position in the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
Times had changed, of course, and in addition to a smaller staff, the paper addressed different social realities. In keeping with her lifelong mission to instill pride, Daisy Bates saw that the paper used the phrase “Afro-American” instead of “black.” She reasoned in Ebony that the former designation “gives you a heritage, a background of which to be proud.” The year 1984 also saw her receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville; the institution would ultimately be the home of the Daisy Bates Collection.
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 to initiate, by opening the Daisy Bates Elementary School. She periodically made public appearances with the Little Rock Nine, and swore in the Chicago Tribune, “I’ll always continue to fight.” On her 80th birthday, some 1,400 people gathered to celebrate her; and in 1996, wire services carried a photo of the wheelchair-bound activist carrying the Olympic torch in Atlanta, Georgia. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that she was met by a “mob scene,” albeit one very different from those she had described in her harrowing book: “Friends, family and admirers, black and white, cheered, yelled encouragement and shed tears.”
Thanks for your attention.