Bates, Daisy Lee Gatson

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Bates, Daisy Lee Gatson

Daisy Lee Gatson Bates, a Civil Rights activist and newspaper publisher, was a key figure in the Integration of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the late 1950s. When a storm of violent public protest swept Little Rock, Bates orchestrated the strategies that would reverse 200 years of state-sanctioned Segregation.

Bates was born in 1920 in Huttig, in the lumbering region of southeast Arkansas. When she was a baby, her mother was raped and murdered. No one was prosecuted for the crime, but suspicion in the town centered on three white men. After her mother's death, her father fled, leaving Bates with his best friends, Orlee Smith and Susie Smith, who adopted her and raised her as their only child. They were kind and indulgent parents and Bates grew to be a strong-willed and determined child. When she was eight, she learned of the circumstances of her birth and Adoption. The painful knowledge of her parents' suffering and the harsh realities of life in the rural south became driving forces in Bates's life.

Although she grew up during difficult economic times, Bates's childhood was relatively comfortable. Her relationship with her adoptive parents was warm and loving, and she was especially close to her father. Nevertheless, Bates's childhood was not easy. Like other black children, she experienced the sting of racial discrimination from an early age. She attended a segregated public school, using worn textbooks handed down from the white children's school. Her school was little more than a room with a potbellied stove that gave so little heat she and her classmates often kept their coats on all day.

In 1941 Orlee Smith became gravely ill. When he knew he was going to die, he called his daughter to his side. He was aware of the anger and pain she carried because of her mother's death and her father's disappearance and because of the bigotry that was a part of their everyday life. He counseled her not to let hatred and hostility control her but rather to use her strong feelings as a catalyst to work for change. He said:

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 soul of every black man and woman. Hate the insults hurled at us by white scum—then try to do something about it, or your hate won't spell a thing.

Smith's death became a kind of rebirth for Bates. She did not know it then, but his words would strengthen and sustain her resolve during the difficult struggles she was to face.

In 1942 Bates married Lucius Christopher Bates, an insurance agent and friend of her late father, and settled in Little Rock. Her husband had majored in journalism at Wilberforce College, in Ohio, and the young couple pooled their savings and began publishing the Arkansas State Press. While writing and publishing the fledgling paper, Bates also enrolled in business administration and public relations courses at Shorter College, in Rome, Georgia. The State Press quickly became the largest and most influential black paper in Arkansas.

With the entry of the United States into World War II, Camp Robinson, near Little Rock, was reopened. The influx of soldiers, many of whom were black men from northern cities, caused racial tensions to rise in the city. The State Press had gained a reputation as an independent "voice of the people" and regularly attacked police brutality, segregation, and inequities in the criminal justice system. When the paper reported a particularly gruesome incident in which a black soldier was killed by a white policeman, many advertisers who were wary of antagonizing their white patrons withdrew their support, and circulation of the paper dropped. However, the Bateses were able to stay afloat and eventually regain their advertisers and rebuild the paper's circulation. Their tenacity paid off in changes in working and living conditions for blacks in Arkansas. For example, as a result of their reporting on police brutality in black neighborhoods, black police officers were hired to patrol those areas.

"We've got to decide if it's going to be this generation or never."
—Daisy Bates

From their earliest days in Little Rock, Bates and her husband were active in the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1952, Bates was elected president of the Arkansas State Conference of NAACP branches. In 1954 when the Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in brown v. board of education 347U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), declaring that segregated schools are "inherently unequal," she and her colleagues began pressing for implementation of the Court's mandate to desegregate the schools "with all deliberate speed" (Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 at 301, 75 S. Ct. 753 at 756, 99 L. Ed. 1083[1955]). Because of her prominent position with the NAACP, Bates found herself a central character in the integration battle that soon erupted in Little Rock.

The Little Rock School Board chose nine black students to be the first to integrate Little Rock Central High School. Planning and coordination of the activities of the group, which came to be known as the Little Rock Nine, fell to Bates. By September 1, 1957, angry crowds had begun milling around Central High to protest and try to prevent the enrollment of the black students. On September 2, the day before school was to open, Governor Orval Faubus dispatched the Arkansas National Guard and ordered it to surround Central. Claiming that he was protecting Little Rock's citizens from possible mob violence, he declared that no black students would be allowed to enter the school and that "blood [would] run in the streets" if any attempted to do so.

NAACP lawyers Wiley Branton and Thurgood Marshall (later a U.S. Supreme Court justice) promptly obtained an Injunction against Faubus for his interference, but Faubus refused to withdraw the troops. Bates decided to have the students enter the school in a group. She contacted eight of them and told them to assemble at a designated intersection the morning of September 4 and travel to school together. The ninth student, Elizabeth Eckford, did not receive word of the plan. Unaware of the maelstrom awaiting her, Eckford arrived at Central High alone and was taunted, jeered, and accosted by hundreds of white people as reporters and photographers from around the world observed and recorded the scene. The National Guard did not attempt to help Eckford but instead blocked her entrance to the school. Neither she nor any of the other members of the Little Rock Nine—who arrived later in a group, as arranged—were allowed to pass through the line of Guard members surrounding the school.

The attempt by Bates and the nine students to enter Central set off a series of violent incidents that continued for 17 days. On September 20, attorneys Branton and Marshall obtained an injunction barring the use of the National Guard to interfere with integration at Central High. By this time, the Bateses' home had become the unofficial center of activity and communication for the integration effort. Reporters from all over the United States came and went, some staying days or weeks.

On September 23 all the Little Rock Nine met at the Bates home to try again to exercise their right to enter Central High. Traveling in two cars they drove to a side entrance of the building, away from the persistent throng, and were escorted into the school by police officers. Again mob violence spread through the city. Later in the day the students were secretly removed from the school through a delivery entrance, and the chief of police declared that Little Rock was under a reign of terror.

The next day the black students remained at home. The mayor and the chief of police appealed to the U.S. department of justice for assistance. In response, President dwight d. eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson to enforce the integration order. Wilson ordered 1,000 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne ("Screaming Eagles") Division of the 327th Infantry Regiment into Little Rock to restore order.

On September 25 the Little Rock Nine assembled again at the Bates home. Under the protection of the paratroopers they were taken to Central High, where they entered under the watchful eyes of hundreds of reporters, photographers, and news camera operators. The paratroopers remained at Central until September 30, when they withdrew to Camp Robinson, 12 miles away. The federalized Arkansas National Guard remained on patrol at Central until the end of the school year. Although it was not necessary to recall the paratroopers, and the number of minority students in Little Rock's formerly white schools steadily increased, violence, hatred, and acrimony continued to plague the city for many years.

Bates endured many attempts to harass and intimidate her, including rocks thrown through her window, gunshots fired at her house, dynamite exploded near her house, and crosses burned on her lawn. In late October 1957 she was arrested under a newly enacted ordinance that required officials of organizations to supply information regarding membership, donors, amounts of contributions, and expenditures. Although she was found guilty under the ordinance, the conviction was later overturned by the Supreme Court on grounds that the ordinance requirement interfered with the members'freedom of association (Bates v. City of Little Rock, 361 U.S. 516, 80 S. Ct. 412, 4 L. Ed. 480 [1960]). In 1959 Bates and her husband were forced to close the State Press for financial reasons.

Through all the harassment Bates remained determined to keep the wheels of the integration movement going forward. After closing the newspaper she traveled throughout the United States working on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and the Johnson administration's antipoverty programs. In 1965 she suffered a stroke and returned to Little Rock, but she continued to be active in the NAACP and in 1967 was elected to its national board. In 1968 she moved to Mitchellville, Arkansas, to organize the Mitchellville Office of Economic Opportunity Self-Help Project. The project was responsible for new water and sewer systems, paved streets, a community center, and a swimming pool.

In 1984 Bates revived the State Press and was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Arkansas and Washington University. In 1986 the University of Arkansas Press published a reprint edition of her autobiography, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, and in 1988 the book received the American Book Award, the first reprint edition to be given that honor.

In 1987 Bates sold the State Press but she remained a consultant for the paper. In the same year Little Rock named a new facility the "Daisy Bates Elementary School". Bates continued her involvement in community activities until shortly before her death on November 4, 1999, in Little Rock. President bill clinton honored her by allowing her body to lie in state at the Capitol.

Further readings

Bates, Daisy. 1962. The Long Shadow of Little Rock. New York: McKay.Branch, Taylor. 1989. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Touchstone Books.

Hine, Darlene C., ed. 1993. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn: Carlson.

Jacoway, Elizabeth, ed. 1999. Understanding the Little Rock Crisis: An Exercise in Remembrance and Reconciliation. Little Rock: Univ. of Arkansas.

Smith, Jessie C., ed. 1992. Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research.

Cross-references

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas; Civil Rights Movement; NAACP; School Desegregation.

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