Daisy Bates

Sunday, January 08th, 2011 – 7:00 pm:


COMMUNITY CINEMA FILM SERIES:

Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock

Daisy Bates was a complex, unconventional, and largely forgotten heroine of the civil rights movement who led the charge to desegregate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

As a black woman who was a feminist before the term was invented, Daisy Bates refused to accept her assigned place in society. Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock tells the story of her life and public support of nine black students who registered to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which culminated in a constitutional crisis — pitting a president against a governor and a community against itself.

Unconventional, revolutionary, and egotistical, Daisy Bates reaped the rewards of instant fame, but paid dearly for it.

In the pantheon of civil rights leaders, the name of Daisy Bates is hard to find. Yet, this woman was a leader in the civil rights movement and a force behind the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School. She was a role model to feminists, a woman of courage and conviction who “knew her place”, which was wherever she wanted to be. Using archival footage, still photographs, and interviews with academics, historians and personal friends, DAISY BATES: FIRST LADY OF LITTLE ROCK tells the story of this remarkable woman.

Growing up in Huttig, Arkansas in the early decades of the twentieth century, Daisy experienced the strict segregation and racism prevalent in the South at the time. At a young age she learned that her biological mother had been raped and killed by white men and her father had then abandoned the family. A spirited girl, Daisy was eager to leave her small town, and found her ticket out when she met L.C. Bates. He was a former journalist, twelve hears her senior, wealthy and fearless, and Daisy went off with him when she was 18, becoming his mistress for the next ten years.

In 1941, the couple moved to Little Rock, where they purchased the Arkansas State Press, the most widely-read black newspaper in the state. The paper provided a voice for the black community, crusading for justice, pushing a radical agenda for change.  When L.C. taught Daisy to use the newspaper as a weapon, she abandoned the party girl life she had been living and became a reporter. Daisy and L.C. finally married in 1942.

At a time when most women—even prominent women—in the civil rights movement were assistants to men, Daisy strived to be a leader. In 1948 she attempted to usurp leadership of the NAACP in Little Rock, but her actions alienated the organization’s leaders. Four years later, however, she ran for president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP and won.

Daisy Bates Protesting

After the 1954 Supreme Court decision striking down school segregation, Daisy and L.C. began a campaign to persuade black parents to transfer their children to all-white schools. It took a lawsuit by the NAACP to overcome the recalcitrance of the school board, and in September 1957, nine black students—the Little Rock Nine– were chosen to integrate Central High School. As tensions mounted, Governor Faubus ordered the National Guard to Central High to prevent violence and also to prevent the students from entering the school. A miscommunication left one black student, Elizabeth Eckford, to arrive at the school alone. She was beset by an angry mob of white people who heckled and threatened her and followed close on her heels as she was turned away from the school. The experience created a strain between Elizabeth and Daisy, who had been shepherding the students through the preparation process for integrating the high school.  Strains arose between Daisy and others as well. Some parents of the Nine felt left out of the process, and many in the black community, fearing for their safety and their livelihoods, questioned the tactics Daisy and the NAACP were using. White segregationists attacked the Bates’s house, throwing rocks through the window, burning crosses on the lawn and even setting fire to the house itself.

Three weeks into the crisis, the black students were finally able to enter Central High School when President Eisenhower sent Army troops to escort them.  But even after calm was restored outside the school, the Nine experienced daily abuse—verbal and physical– inside the school.

The NAACP saw the Little Rock crisis as a fundraising opportunity and sent Daisy on a speaking tour around the country. This put Daisy in the national spotlight as she skillfully used the media to tell the Little Rock story. The publicity, however, brought her criticism. Fashionable, glamorous and outspoken, Daisy was accused of using the events of Little Rock to promote herself.

The issue of self-promotion arose again in May 1958 when the NAACP awarded the Spingarn Medal, its most prestigious honor, to the Little Rock Nine. Daisy was not named as a recipient, and she launched a campaign to have herself included in the award. When several of the students’ parents threatened to boycott the award ceremony, the NAACP gave in and made Daisy one of the recipients. The episode left a number of people with bitter feelings.

In 1959, segregationists made good on a promise to destroy Daisy Bates, targeting the Bates’s newspaper. As advertisers withdrew their support, the paper’s revenues declined and the publication folded. Daisy moved to New York City where she spent two years writing her autobiography. In 1968 she joined the war on poverty and worked on economic development in the town of Mitchellville, Arkansas for several years. Toward the end of her life, Daisy was in poor health and living in poverty. When she died, she was the first female and first African American to lie in state in the Arkansas state capitol.

Daisy Bates has been recognized for her forthright and forceful efforts to ensure equal educational opportunities for Arkansas’s children. Her leadership in the desegregation of Central High School laid the foundation for others in the civil rights movement to take bold action, and her legacy shows what one heroic and determined individual can do to change the world.

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  • Community Forum Photos by Jon Delorey (except where noted)
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