Daisy Bates, 84, Civil Rights Leader

 

 

By Douglas Martin,, November 5, 1999

 

Daisy Bates, a civil rights leader who in 1957 led the fight to admit nine black students to Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., died at a hospital there Thursday, November 4, 1999. She was 84.

In the struggle, rocks were thrown through her window, a burning cross was placed on her roof and the newspaper published by her and her husband, L.C. Bates, was ultimately destroyed financially. But she nurtured the nine black children who faced vicious insults and physical intimidation. She encouraged them to be courageous, while striving to guard them against howling white mobs.

The result was one of the major early victories in the civil rights movement. The desegregation of Central High School with the aid of federal troops signaled that Washington would strongly enforce the 1954 Supreme Court decision to outlaw racial segregation in schools. Mrs. Bates, as Arkansas president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was a central figure in the litigation that led to the confrontation in front of the yellow-brick school building, as well as the mean and snarling scenes that unfolded in front of it.

The success of the Little Rock campaign, she later said, "had a lot to do with removing fear that people have for getting involved."

In her forward to Mrs. Bates' 1962 book, "The Long Shadow of Little Rock," Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, "I have paid her homage in my thoughts many times, and I want to tell her again how remarkable I think she was through these horrible years."

President Clinton Thursday called her a dear friend and a heroine and said her death "will leave a vacuum in the civil rights community, the state of Arkansas and our country."

Daisy Bates was born in the little sawmill town of Huttig in southern Arkansas, growing up in a shotgun shack, because one could stand at the front door and look straight through the front and back doors into the backyard. She attended segregated schools that used out - of- date textbooks passed on from white schools, according to the African-American Almanac.

In her book, she told of the trauma of learning at 8 that her birth mother had been killed in a rape attempt by three white men. After she had heard rumors, her father told her the truth in simple and straightforward terms. "So happy once," she wrote, "now I was like a little sapling which, after a violent storm, puts out only gnarled and twisted branches."

When she was about 15, an insurance agent came to visit her home. He was L.C. Bates, who had studied journalism and then worked for newspapers in Colorado and Kansas City. Newspapers were a shaky calling in the depths of the Depression, and he had turned to selling insurance.

After a courtship, the two married and settled in Little Rock. Together, they started a newspaper called The Arkansas State Press. It reported extensively on racially motivated violence and became known as a strong exponent of civil rights. After being elected state NAACP president in 1952, and as a result of the Supreme Court decision that had the effect of outlawing segregated schools, Mrs. Bates became a particularly forceful advocate of desegregation. She began by taking black children to white schools to be registered. If the school refused, as it always did, she would report it in her paper.

In Arkansas, local and state officials initially tried to delay school desegregation, ostensibly to make the process more orderly. This resulted in a suit by the NAACP to force the issue. At Central High School, 75 black students initially registered, a number that was ultimately reduced to nine chosen by school authorities. They were deemed the most emotionally mature.

But Gov. Orval Faubus, responding to political urging from other Southern governors as well as polls showing 85 percent of the state's residents opposed school desegregation, sent in the National Guard to stop blacks from attending. Faubus said that "blood would run in the streets" if they tried. A forewarning of the escalating tension was a rock tossed through the Bates' window. A note was tied to it, saying: "Stone this time. Dynamite next."

The first day of school, the young people were turned away with bayonets at the schoolhouse door. Racial and sexual epithets were hurled at them. Mr. and Mrs. Bates were at the scene. The next day, the National Guard stepped in again.

Then President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the federal troops, rebuffing governor. Faubus' pleaded for a one-year cooling-off period. In her book, Mrs. Bates tells of waiting for a call from the superintendent telling her to bring the children the next day. She had told the parents that if they did not hear from her by 10 to take their phones off the hook and get some sleep. But shortly after midnight, the superintendent called and said that the next day, Sept. 24, the children should come to school.

Mr. and Mrs. Bates spent the next three hours visiting the parents. The next morning, all the children showed up at the Bates' home to be picked up by a military convoy.

"My eyes none too dry, I saw the parents with tears of happiness in their eyes as they watched the group drive off," she wrote.

Two years later, the Bates' newspaper would close because sales of advertisements had slowed to almost nothing. She served in various civil rights positions both locally and nationally and was the only woman who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. In an interview in 1986, she said: "I'm 75 and a half. But I'm not too tired to stand and do what I can for the cause I believe in. I would like to see before I die that blacks and whites and Christians can all get together."

In recent years, Mrs. Bates suffered a series of strokes. "She just wore out," her niece, Sharon T. Gatson said. She is survived by four brothers: Leo Gatson of Strong, Ark.; Kucas and Lowell Gatson of Spearville, La.,, and Emmitt Gatson of Detroit.

On Monday, her body will lie in state on the second floor rotunda of the Arkansas state capitol. Just a few feet away is the office where Faubus orchestrated the 1957 confrontation.

 


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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov