Film & Television · Politics

Daisy Bates, Unsung Heroine of the Civil Rights Movement

Bates began to have doubts. She had promised the parents that their children would be safe. Having no children of her own, Bates devoted herself to her charges. The children finally entered the school only when the president ordered 10,000 federal troops to police the explosive situation. Of course, the ordeals of the Little Rock Nine, as they came to be called, had only begun. Inside the school, with no one to protect them, the children were subjected to taunts, spitting, and much worse. Outside, the Nine and their families, together with Bates, became primary targets of the hate crimes committed against the entire black community of Little Rock.

Bates gained celebrity (some said notoriety) and was asked to speak by organizations outside Arkansas. Because of her, black women became role models for the white women who organized the women’s movement. But she paid a high price. She was accused of using innocent children to advance her own agenda. She was opposed not only by whites but by black men who resented her usurpation of their power. By 1959, the newspaper for the black community that she had published with her husband, the paper that had given her a voice, was bankrupt, having lost advertising revenue because of its coverage of the crisis. Bates and her husband divorced, though they eventually remarried.

Daisy Bates was beautiful, glamorous, and articulate. She was outspoken. She didn’t ask; she told. She refused to stay “in her place.” “She took the lead when women were supposed to follow,” said La Cruise. But the filmmaker can’t be accused of producing a hagiography. She shows that Bates was also egotistical, vain, and decidedly not a saint: She dated her future husband for years while he was still married to someone else. Her detractors claimed that her accomplishments were driven at least in part by her desire for self-aggrandizement.

Men headed all the major civil rights organizations in 1963, and the other women of the civil rights movement were their assistants. Bates, however, refused to take second place. She wanted to lead. The Little Rock NAACP leadership denied her entry to the top ranks, so Bates did an end run around them and was elected president of the state organization. After the 1963 March on Washington, the men, but not the women, were invited to the White House to discuss ways to pass the Civil Rights Act when the speeches were over. No one thought to include the women who spoke at the March—Rosa Parks and Josephine Baker as well as Daisy Bates.

At the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the desegregation crisis in Little Rock, president Clinton recognized Daisy Bates. The president disclosed that “it was Little Rock that made racial equality a driving obsession in my life.” Two years later, in 1999, Bates died destitute. She became both the first woman and the first African-American to lie in state in the Arkansas capitol. Thousands of daisies were laid by her casket.

The film tells Bates’s story most effectively through photographs of Bates and her world: Bates and the Little Rock Nine, the angry faces of the violent mob outside Central High—pictures of a moment and a woman that are fading from the collective memory. Angela Basset speaks for Bates, animating many of the photos taken over time and voicing the activist’s inner thoughts, presumably taken from Bates’s memoir. The other narrators are the people who knew Bates, including some of the Little Rock Nine, and experts in the history of the fight for civil rights who offer their insights.

 

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  • Shirley February 10, 2016 at 11:29 am

    I grew up in southwest Arkansas (Texarkana) during that time. Local segregationists loathed Daisy Bates. They called her a Communist to try to turn people against her. They used her name to smear anybody who didn’t go along with them by calling them a Daisy Bates sympathizer.

    Thanks for printing this article!

    Reply
  • Bernadette Laganella February 10, 2016 at 7:28 am

    I am so happy to read more about Daisy Bates. I featured her last week in my column Feminist Friday at my blog http://www.HaddonMusings.com. I have been featuring and honoring black women for Black History Month in February.

    Reply