In honor of Black History Month, we are spending the month celebrating the fabulous black women who have and are making a difference in our nation and around the world. Today, we share with you our feature (first published here) of Daisy Bates—a feminist who managed to spur the desegregation of  Little Rock schools.

 

The name Daisy Bates hardly resonates today—few people outside Arkansas recognize it, much less know of her importance as a leader in the civil rights movement. Yet the actions of this singular woman precipitated a constitutional crisis and forced the president of the United States to send federal troops to an American city for the first time since the Civil War.

With a formal education that ended in eighth grade, Bates headed the Arkansas NAACP in a turbulent era, published a newspaper, wrote articles and an autobiography. The most significant of her achievements, however, was the desegregation of the all-white high school in Little Rock. Six years later, at the 1963 March on Washington, Bates addressed the crowd following Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Does anyone remember that?

Independent filmmaker Sharon La Cruise found out about Bates, and her interest was piqued. How, she wondered, did this feminist (a word coined years later by the women’s movement), a black woman who stubbornly refused to be cowed by either black men or white mobs, almost single-handedly orchestrate the notorious desegregation of Little Rock schools? It was an action that facilitated—just as white supremacists had feared—the integration of schools throughout the South.

La Cruise determined to investigate and publicize the story of Daisy Bates and restore the activist to her rightful place in history. It took her seven years to write, produce, and direct her documentary. She found people who knew Bates and spoke with them, and she pored through newspaper archives, microfiche, and personal letters in order to tell the story.

Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock premiered on PBS during Black History Month. It was subsequently screened in New York at the Athena Film Festival, an event that showcased movies about courageous women leaders, movies that were in many cases directed by women. Appropriately, PBS will continue to make Daisy Bates available for watching through March, which is Women’s History Month.

In 1956, two years after the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in public schools, Daisy Bates entered the office of the Little Rock school superintendent and demanded that he integrate the schools. When he refused, the NAACP sued the school board. In court, as Bates testified, the (white) prosecutor addressed her as “Daisy.” It was customary usage, because whites at the time didn’t concede any honorifics to blacks, not even the courtesy of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Bates confronted him, telling him that only her husband and friends had the right to use her given name. She insisted he call her “Mrs. Bates” or nothing at all. In that small way she asserted herself as a leader and demanded respect. Shortly thereafter the first rocks were pitched through her windows.

Bates spent the year going from door to door trying to recruit black students who would attempt to enter the all-white high school. The superintendent found ways to disqualify almost all of them, but 17 students survived the process. A year later, in 1957, nine of them, registered by the NAACP and coached by Bates at her house, walked to the doors of Central High, only to be confronted by hundreds of angry white supremacists and police armed with nightclubs and tear gas.

The governor, Orval Faubus, sent the Arkansas National Guard to “maintain peace” by preventing the black students from entering the school. The shocking images made headlines throughout the world. The impasse continued for weeks until President Eisenhower ordered the governor to recall the National Guard, leaving the nine students to face the mob by themselves. Read More »

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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