Daisy Bates was an American journalist and civil rights activist who is best known for playing a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957.
Bates was born in 1914 in Huttig, Arkansas. Bates was adopted as a baby after her mother was murdered when attempting to resist being raped by three white men. The men were never punished, and her father fled for his safety. At the age of seven, Bates came to understand racial discrimination for the first time when she was told while attempting to buy meat from the butcher “niggers have to wait ‘til I wait on the white people.” Not long after this, she discovered the truth about her parents and her anger, coupled with the fact that she attended the inferior segregated public high school in Hutting would later fuel her civil rights activism.
When Bates was 15, she began dating L.C. Bates, an insurance salesman and experienced journalist ten years her senior. The two moved to Little Rock together in 1941 and married a year later. That same year, Bates joined her husband in his dream of running his own newspaper, the Arkansas State Press. The paper spotlighted achievements of black Arkansans, frequently ran articles on the need for social and economic improvements for black residents of Arkansas and became known for it’s reporting of acts of police brutality against black soldiers from a nearby army camp. The content of the paper led to white business owners pulling advertisements from the paper, but the couple continued to produce it despite the loss of revenue. It became a well-known voice for civil rights, even before the movement itself emerged. Little Rock began to gain a reputation as a liberal southern city as conditions improved, largely due to the relentless campaigning on the part of the paper.
In 1952, Bates was elected president of the Arkansas Conference of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branches, she and her husband had been members since their arrival in Little Rock. She was also a co-chair for the state conference’s Committee of Fair Employment Practices, and was successful in both roles. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was unconstitutional. Bates led the NAACP’s protest against the Little Rock school board after schools in Arkansas refused to enrol Black students. She personally took black children to the white public school, and photographers from the State Press documented them being turned away. The pressure her campaign put on the school board led to it announcing in 1957 that it would begin desegregating Central High School. Bates took a group of nine black students to Central High School on September 4th, but the Arkansas National Guard were ordered by Governor Orval Faubus to prevent them from entering the building. They were also faced with white mobs threatening to kill the black students and the Little Rock police chief was instructed to arrest Bates and other NAACP officials. They surrendered themselves, and were fined by the judge for failing to provide information about members for the public record. NAACP lawyers later appealed, and won a reversal in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Following the first refusal to allow the students to attend the school, an editorial appeared on the front page of the State Press including the words ““It is the belief of this paper that since the Negro’s loyalty to America has forced him to shed blood on foreign battle fields against enemies, to safeguard constitutional rights, he is in no mood to sacrifice these rights for peace and harmony at home”. Bates’ home became the headquarters for the battle to desegregate Central High School, and became a personal advocate and supporter to the students. Effigy’s of Bates were hanged by segregationists, and bombs were thrown at her home. She was also threatened, and forced to keep a loaded shotgun by her door to protect herself. On September 25th of that year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to protect the students and uphold the law. Flanked by the troops, the Little Rock Nine were finally allowed to attend their first day at school. Bates continued to support them as they faced harassment and intimidation from people against desegregation, despite the fact that she continued to receive numerous threats.
The Arkansas State Press suffered due to Bates’ involvement in the desegregation of Little Rock as advertisers orchestrated a boycott which ultimately caused the paper to shut down in 1959. The following year, Bates’ husband accepted a post with the NAACP and continued in the position until his retirement in 1971. Bates spent her time writing a book detailing the Little Rock Integration Crisis and in 1962 The Long Shadow of Little Rock was published, with a foreword by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Bates then moved to Washington D.C. where she worked for the Democratic National Committee and became involved with anti-poverty projects for President Lydon B. Johnson’s administration.
In 1965, Bates suffered a stroke and returned to Little Rock. A year later, she donated papers, photographs, and other historical documents from the Little Rock crisis to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. In 1968, she moved to Mitchellville, Arkansas where she worked on a community revitalisation project which was responsible for new sewer systems, paved streets, a water system, and community center. In 1984, Bates resurrected the Arkansas State Press and ran it for four years, after which she sold it but continued to act as a consultant.
In 1999, Bates died in Little Rock. She has received numerous honours for her work, including: being named Woman of the Year (1957) by the National Council of Negro Women; receiving the Spingarn Medal as a joint recipient with the Little Rock Nine; American Book Award (1988) and was been posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton along with the other Little Rock Nine members in 1999. The Daisy Bates Elementary School in Little Rock in named in her honour, and the third Monday in February is now an official state holiday in Arkansas named the ”George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day”.