Image Ownership: Public Domain
The image is burned into the collective American consciousness: In September 1957 nine African American children walk into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Surrounding them is a jeering mob. Outside the frame stood Daisy Bates, whose fierce tenacity in pursuit of school integration led to this momentous day.
By fall 1957, Bates was an experienced civil rights activist. Publisher, along with her husband L.C. Bates, of the African American Arkansas State Press
, she also was president of the Arkansas state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Bates’ childhood experiences fueled her activism, particularly the murder of her mother, killed resisting an attempted rape by three white men in her hometown of Huttig, Arkansas. As a newspaper owner, Bates channeled her anger toward social change. During and after World War II, the State Press
documented violence and harassment directed at African American soldiers stationed at Fort Robinson, a dozen miles from Little Rock.
Bates turned her attention to school integration following the May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education
decision. Working with the NAACP, she recruited children to test the ruling. Beaten back each time she tried to register students, she forced the hand of the Little Rock school board, which set a timetable for integration, then backtracked in the face of white threats. On the fateful day when federal troops finally escorted students into Central High School it was Bates’ home from which they departed and to which they returned. She experienced reprisals – rocks through her window, bomb threats, arrest, and the loss of her newspaper. Through it all she remained committed to her “children.”
In 1962, Bates described her experiences in her memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock
. By then her investment in young people had begun to pay dividends as a new generation began directly pressuring the white establishment. In her later years, Bates reaped honors and rewards. In 1987 the Little Rock school board christened the Daisy Bates Elementary School. In 1996, three years before her death, Bates, now wheelchair-bound, listened to cheers from both blacks and whites as she carried an Olympic Torch through the streets of Atlanta.
Daisy Bates, The Long Shadow of Little Rock (New York: David McKay, 1962);
Kathleen Cairns, Front-Page Women Journalists (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003); Jessie Carney Smith, ed., Notable Black American Women (Detroit: Gale Research, 1992); Daisy Bates papers, University of Arkansas, http:// libinfo.uark.edu/special collections
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo