School desegregation is a fact in Little Rock and – because of Little Rock – in many other Southern cities, but Daisy Bates, who played a key role in making it all possible, is forgotten by the public.
(Negro Digest/May 1962) She was the unlikeliest of heroes. There she was, young and comely, as trim and chic as a model in a magazine advertisement. At the most prosaic, it was easy to picture her as a youthful matron, dainty and decorative, waiting in her well-appointed home for the man who adored her to come in from his labors.
When the Little Rock crisis reached fever pitch in the fall of 1957 and people across the world were wondering about the woman called Daisy Bates, writers were turning out reams of copy in an effort to describe her. In her native Arkansas, of course, she was pictured as a fire-breathing, Red-lining witch and called every vile name printable and a few names which, in a truly civilized society, are not printable at all.
But other writers were more objective. Seeking to satisfy the curiosity about the woman who had turned the nation upside down, a United Press correspondent described Daisy Bates as “a businesslike woman of 35” and went on in a kind of awe to list the measurements Of her slim figure. “She wears her black hair in a casual bob, sometimes covering part of her forehead,” he wrote, adding: “Newsmen find little trouble talking to her.”
For readers of the Minneapolis Tribune, the famed Negro journalist Carl T. Rowan was more to the point: “Actually, she is a typical Negro housewife—different from the average American woman, perhaps, primarily in that she prefers poker to bridge and has become expert with a rifle.”
Inherent in Rowan’s description is the suggestion that, had the wanton finger of Fate pointed at many another Negro woman, the results would have been pretty much the same. There is nothing in this suggestion to detract from the extraordinary achievement of Daisy Lee Bates. Rather, there is something in it of commendation for all the millions of Negro women who have borne with uncommon fortitude the burden of their culture’s cruelty and of their men’s helpless despair.
If Daisy Bates is typical of her kind, then she proved a splendid example. Never once in her long and barbarous ordeal was there a public moment of faltering or re- treat. If there had not been private ones, then she would have been more than human, and Daisy Bates is very human indeed.
On September 23, 1957, the day the segregationists refer to as “Black Monday,” Mrs. Bates came closest to losing her extraordinary calm. The vicious mobs had forced the nine Negro children from Central High School; state police had just intercepted a caravan of some 100 cars, loaded with enough explosives to dynamite half the city, as it neared the Bates home; and the threat of violence hung like a living thing over the whole state. In the tense stillness of the night, the phone rang in the Bates home and, when she answered it, an obscene voice spoke in her ear: “We have just had our first killing in Little Rock, and you are responsible. There will be more before day.”
“My heart stood still,” Mrs. Bates recalls. “I thought of Mr. Eckford, the father of Elizabeth (one of the nine children), returning home from his night job. I could envision him being shot down. And at the same time I pictured Governor Faubus gloating in his ill-famed glory.”
Faith deserted her: “In that moment, I became bitter for the first time. I hated everything for which America stood. I hated these people who had as much as burned the U.S. Constitution when they put fiery crosses on our lawn. I hated the so-called liberals who were too afraid of their social positions to speak out clearly and firmly…
“Most of all, I hated the frightened and complacent Negro of the South and the contented Negro of the North. I walked into my bedroom and cried: ‘How much can a people stand?’ I think that, in that moment, if I could have lifted the Cotton Curtain and walked through it to the Iron Curtain that I would have done so without looking back.
“As these things were going through my mind, I was praying. Then, something seemed to say to me: ‘You cannot spend your time hating. You must work and have faith.’ When the report of murder was finally checked and proved to be false, I felt like a person who had been given a new lease on life.”
Daisy Bates did not ask for fame. What she sought was, indeed, what millions of other Negro women seek—the freedom for their loved ones which is their birthright as Americans. Simply that. Specifically, as president of the Arkansas branches of the NAACP, she asked that the Negro children of her community be permitted to attend without stigma the public schools of the city of Little Rock. And for this, she found herself in the eye of a racist hurricane.
The lady from Little Rock was first catapulted into the international spotlight on the terrible morning in September 1957 when —supported by nothing but her courage—she shepherded the nine teen-agers through a howling mob of whites to confront a contingent of hostile National Guardsmen with orders to bar the children from the white high school.
It was an incredible and beautiful thing, that procession. Here were nine children, scarcely into puberty, facing in their tender youth all the ugly madness of rampant racism, and facing it with a dignity that was as old and as proud as the human race. And here was the woman who had inspired them, who had shown them by her example that a human being is not a beast, that there is something in a man stronger and more meaningful than the bombs in his hands and the hatred in his heart. But, though the outside world first heard of Daisy Bates after that day, she had long been a familiar personage in her native state. She had arrived in Little Rock, a very young bride, with her newspaper publishing husband back in 1941. And from the beginning, from her vantage point on the weekly State Press, she had waged war on bigotry. With her husband, she had worked to inform the Negro people Of their rights and to urge the white people to respect these rights.
The State Press had been active in prodding the city of Little Rock to hire Negro policemen; the paper had been in the forefront of the movement for peaceful integration of the state university law and medical schools long before the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling; and it was inevitable that the weekly would urge speedy compliance with the Supreme Court’s edict.
Daisy Bates had long been active in the NAACP and, a year before the desegregation ruling, she was named president of all the branches in the state. Had there been willing and capable local leadership, she would have left the job to others, but there was none. She stepped in, requested compliance of the school boards, counselled the parents of the Negro children, and filed suits against public omcials when all else failed.
It was obvious that the white people of Little Rock had no wish to obey the national law, and it was equally obvious that the courts had no alternative but to compel com- pliance. The final clash was be- tween the power of Orval Faubus, the defiant governor, and that of the Federal courts. On the morning when Daisy Bates and the nine children walked up to Central High School, Faubus had called out the National Guard to turn them back. Nearly three weeks later, acting at last, President Eisenhower inducted the Guardsmen into Federal service and sent 1,100 officers and men of the 101st Airborne Division into the city to enforce the court’s decision.
When the children the next day marched off once more to Central High School, things had changed. The mobs were still there, spitting and cursing, but the danger was gone. The children were escorted by paratroopers who made it very clear that they were on the side of the law and that the law was on the side of the Negro children.
For everyone concerned, the first stage of the battle was over. The Negro children did not have to fear the white hoodlums who jeered at them along the streets, but they still had to exercise super-human care and restraint inside the school. The racist mobs knew that they had lost, but they are poor losers, and they shifted their tactics to boycott, harassment and terror.
It did not matter that there were so many others who agreed with the mobs, or that they were in high places. Their numbers and their eminence served only to illustrate how widespread was their affiction and to what tragic extent their disease had been indulged by the nation.
Of course, the children were too young to understand this. They knew only that they were in the right and that those who abused them were, somehow, more in need of help than they. But Daisy Bates knew. She had, after a fashion, experienced it all before and she would, more than likely, experience it all again.
In the year that followed the morning that the nine children safely went off to school without her, Daisy Bates knew peace only on those occasions when she was away from Little Rock. Her phone rang incessantly, crosses were burned on her lawn, torches were tossed on her roof, shots were fired through her house, and the big picture window in her living room was broken so often that she finally gave up having it repaired. She endured it.
She also endured the gradual but steady economic pressure on her husband’s news- paper, that drove the paper out of business and her husband to financial ruin. Advertisers withdrew, and circulation dropped, and finally the publisher was forced to vacate the building that housed his plant.
There were times when Mr. and Mrs. L. C. (for Lucius Christopher) Bates felt they had been licked at last, that those who had schemed to drive them out of Little Rock had won. Then, for a while, sympathetic people from all over the country rallied to their side, renewing their hope.
During those frantic months, Daisy Bates received the avid applause of Negroes everywhere and the moral support of people all over the world, including some white people. Among her numerous citations and tokens of recognition is the coveted Spingarn Medal, awarded jointly to her and the nine brave children whom she served as mentor.
But, as so often happens, the public soon forgot. School integration was an accomplished fact in Little Rock and—because of Little Rock—in many other Southern cities, and Daisy Bates was no longer news. She remains president of the Arkansas NAACP. It is a fulltime job offering no financial reward at all.
After the demise of the Arkansas State Press, Publisher Bates was hired as Arkansas field secretary of the NAACP, a job that utilizes his special talents as a journalist and his keen knowledge of the locality but which cannot pay him the money to which he was accustomed. Needless to say, there is hardly any other place in Arkansas where he can find a decent job.
During much of 1961 and 1962, Mrs. Bates was in New York City working on a book recording her experiences in the drama of Little Rock. The book, tentatively titled The Daisy Bates Story, is scheduled for publication this summer by the David McKay Company.
In the book she will detail, for the first time, the behind-the-scenes incidents which the national press dared not—or was reluctant to— report. She will reveal what happened to the nine children and to their parents. She will name the white people of Little Rock who, out of Christian principle, sided with the Negro children and who paid for their religious faith with financial disaster and social ruin.
But, most important Of all, she will tell what she felt herself in those grim and dangerous days when she struggled with super-human effort against the specter of bitterness and defeat.
Before returning to Little Rock this spring, Mrs. Bates sat in her comfortable suite in the Brittany Hotel in New York’s Greenwich Village and discussed her impending return home. “I admit that the idea of returning to Little Rock is frightening, when I recall the intense hatred that has been generated against me by the politicians,” she said. “This hatred has been manifested in many ways: by the bombing of our home, death threats to me and my family, and the loss of our paper.
“Some people have said to me that progress has been made because a limited number of Negro students are attending classes in the senior and junior high schools. I recognize the fact that this could be considered progress. I am also cognizant of the fact that the students are not permitted to participate in any extra-curricular activities. And that the restaurants, theatres, hotels and recreational facilities in Little Rock are still segregated.
“I would like to continue to be a part of the revolution that will surely one day write ‘finish’ to the vicious practice of segregation in Arkansas.
“That is why I am returning to Little Rock.”
It may very well be dangerous for Daisy Bates to return home, but it also would seem that her return bodes no comfort for those who are not willing to make freedom a reality for all the people of Arkansas.