Daisy Gatson Bates

Aug 2nd, 2011 | By | Category: Activism
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Daisy Gatson Bates1914-1999  Daisy Gatson Bates was an activist and publisher. She is best known for her role as mentor and advisor to the group of nine students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Bates dedicated her life to the struggle against injustice, and was among this country’s fiercest and most steadfast advocates for civil rights.

Early Tragedy

Born Daisy Lee Gatson in Huttig, Arkansas, on November 11, 1914, Bates was raised by friends of her parents. When Bates was very young, her mother was raped and murdered by three white men in Huttig who were never called to account for their crime. Devastated and facing intimidation from white residents of Huttig, Bates’ father fled, leaving his young daughter with Susie and Orlie Smith. The Smiths raised Bates as their own, and it was not until she was eight years old that she learned that she was not their biological daughter. Bates also learned of the tragic circumstances of her mother’s death.

In 1929, at the age of 15, Bates met Lucius Christopher (L.C.) Bates, a traveling insurance salesman and one-time journalist. Over the next decade, a romance developed between Bates and her older suitor. In 1941, the two moved to Little Rock, where L.C.’s dreams of returning to journalism were realized when the couple started the Arkansas State Press. The small newspaper quickly earned a reputation for stories dealing with themes of injustice and violence against Blacks in the south.

The couple married in 1942, and soon became prominent members of the black community in Little Rock. The Arkansas State Press was the dominant civil rights voice of the region, and the Bateses became deeply involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. During this time, Bates also enrolled in classes at both Shorter College and Philander Smith College. She was elected president of the Arkansas State Conference of NAACP branches in 1952. This position set Bates up to be a central figure in what was becoming known as the Civil Rights Movement.

The Little Rock Nine

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that segregated education was inherently unequal. In 1956, the Arkansas NAACP, and through it, Bates, became involved in a legal effort to enforce this ruling, which was being actively resisted by Whites in the south. In its attempt to integrate Little Rock Central High School, the NAACP chose nine black students who would come to be known as the “Little Rock Nine,” to be the first to enroll in the fall of 1957. As the president of the State Conference of NAACP branches, Bates became one of the primary leaders in this effort. Her house was used both for strategy meetings and as a place for the students to gather. To the students, Bates became a mentor and advisor, helping them to understand both the specifics of what they were about to go through, as well as the larger implications of the events about to unfold.

As the start of school approached in the fall of 1957, crowds of angry Whites began to gather around Central High protesting desegregation and attempting to block the nine students from entering the building. The day before the school was to open, Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas, called in the National Guard, which surrounded Central High and were ordered not to let the black students in. The Little Rock Nine, along with Bates, attempted to enter the school on September 3, 1957, but were turned away. Riots, protests, and a number of violent incidents followed. Bates and the Nine made several more attempts to gain access to the school, but it was not until Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent in the 101st Airborn Division that the students were permanently able to attend Little Rock Central High School.

As a result of the notoriety that this episode brought, Bates became a target for harassment both from anonymous disgruntled citizens and through the legal system. Nervous advertisers began to pull away from the Arkansas State Press, and in 1959, she and her husband were forced to shut the paper down. In 1960, Bates moved to New York where she began work on her memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, which would later become the first book to win an American Book Award in reprint. Bates then moved to Washington, DC, where she worked for the Democratic National Committee and the Johnson administration. She was forced to return to Little Rock, however, after suffering a stroke in 1965.

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, Bates worked with impoverished African American communities to help them achieve economic self-sufficiency. She revived the Arkansas State Press in 1984, and that same year received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Arkansas. In the late 1980s, an elementary school in Little Rock was named after Bates, and in 1996, at the age of 82, she had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch during the summer games in Atlanta. On November 4, 1999, Bates died in Little Rock, Arkansas.

While Bates had no children of her own, she nurtured not only those nine students who participated in the immense and courageous action in the fall of 1957, but also countless others who were inspired by her exemplary life. Bates is best remembered for her role in the events surrounding the Little Rock Nine—she even received a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for her participation—but her true legacy is in the lifetime of tireless effort she invested in fighting against injustice, poverty, and discrimination.


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