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Bates, Daisy

rock central little nine

Daisy Bates was born Daisy Lee Gatson in Huttig, Arkansas, on or around November 12, 1912. In her autobiography, The Long Shadow of Little Rock , she described Huttig, located at the very bottom of the state, as a “sawmill plantation,” where “everyone worked for the mill, lived in houses owned by the mill, and traded at the general store run by the mill.”

Tragedy struck the Bates family when Daisy was only a child. Her birth mother was raped and murdered by three white men, and her father, fearing for his safety, fled town. Orlee and Susie Smith, two family friends, adopted Daisy. It was not until she was older that she would learn the truth about her mother and father.

Growing up in Huttig, a town of less than 1,000 persons, Bates said she did not really understand what being black meant until she was seven. She went to the store to buy some meat for her mother and was told by the butcher, “Niggers have to wait ‘til I wait on the white people” (1987 1962, in chapter “What It Means to Be Negro”). Bates developed a deep-seated hatred of the white race living in the Jim Crow South. Her adoptive father, bothered by his daughter’s rage, counseled her not to hate white people just because they are white. “Hate can destroy you,” he told her. “If you hate, make it count for something. Hate the humiliations we are living under in the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the soul of every black man and woman. Hate the insults hurled at us by white scum—and then try to do something about it, or your hate won’t spell at thing”.

When Bates was a teenager, her father’s friend, Lucius Christopher (L.C.) Bates, an insurance salesman and former journalist, came calling. He pursued her for several years before they finally tied the knot in 1942. Bates and L.C. moved north to Little Rock. L.C. dreamed of returning to his journalistic roots so he and Daisy leased a printing plant and started the Arkansas State Press .

The State Press ‘s circulation reached 10,000 in its first few months of publication. It soon grew into the largest, most influential black newspaper in the state. It publicized violations of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling, as well as gruesome instances of police brutality, and it fought to free blacks from slum housing, menial jobs, and injustice in the courtrooms.

In 1952 Daisy was elected president of the Arkansas NAACP. As state president, she participated in litigation to pressure the Little Rock School Board to abide by the Brown decision and integrate. “To the nation’s Negroes,” she wrote in The Long Shadow , “the Supreme Court decision meant that the time for delay, evasion, or procrastination was over.”

Facing increasing pressure from black parents, the NAACP, and a Supreme Court ruling, Virgil Blossom, superintendent of the Little Rock Public School District, announced a plan to begin the desegregation process with Little Rock Central High School in September 1957.

Seventy-five black students initially registered for admission into Central High, but school officials chose the nine whom they thought were the most emotionally mature. The Little Rock Nine, as they came to be known, were Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls Lanier, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed-Wair, and Melba Pattillo Beals. Bates served as an adviser and mentor to these students. She provided protective custody for them and was their leading advocate. She had no children of her own, and the Little Rock Nine were affectionately referred to as “Daisy Bates’s children.”

The Little Rock Nine were initially slated to enter Central High on Tuesday, September 3, 1957. The night before, Governor Orval Faubus called up the state’s National Guard to surround Central High and prevent the students from entering. He did this, he claimed, in order to protect citizens and property from white supremacists that were headed in caravans toward Little Rock. If the Little Rock Nine attempted to enter Central High, Faubus said, “blood would run in the streets.” The Nine did not, in fact, attend Central High on September 3, the first day of school. On September 4, Bates phoned them and instructed them to meet a few blocks from Central and walk to school as a group. Elizabeth Eckford did not have a phone in her home, however, and never received the message. She attempted to enter Central High by herself, through the front door. As the Arkansas National Guard looked on, she was met by an angry white mob who berated her and threatened to lynch her. Ironically, it was two whites who stepped forward to assist her. They helped her get on a city bus and away from the school without injury. The rest of the Little Rock Nine were denied entry by the National Guardsmen.

The National Guard troops finally left Central High on September 20, after a federal judge had granted an injunction against Faubus’s use of National Guard troops to prevent integration. On Monday, September 23, school resumed. There were no troops, but Central High was surrounded by policemen. A white mob, numbering close to 1,000, gathered in front of the school, waiting to spew more hatred at the black students. But instead of entering through the front door, the police escorted the Nine through a side entrance. When the mob learned that the Nine had made it inside, they began to attack the police and charge towards the building. For their own safety, the Nine were removed from school before noon.

With a crisis on their hands, Congressman Brooks Hays and Mayor Woodrow Mann asked the Eisenhower administration to intervene. “Hysteria in all of its madness enveloped the city,” Bates later wrote, and “racial feelings were at a fever pitch.” On September 24, Mann sent a telegram to Eisenhower requesting federal troops. Eisenhower obliged, and federal troops were dispatched that day. He also federalized the Arkansas National Guard, which removed Faubus’s power over them. On September 25, the Little Rock Nine entered Central High School under the protection of 1,000 members of the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army.

The Little Rock Nine were not the only ones who were tormented during the Central High Crisis. In August 1957, a rock was thrown through the picture window of the Bates home. A note attached to the rock read, “Stone this time. Dynamite next.” Two days later, an eight-foot cross was burned on the Bates’s lawn, accompanied by the message, “Go back to Africa. KKK.” On July 7, 1958, a bomb was set off in front of the Bates home, but no one was injured. Bates said it took many weeks for her to become accustomed to seeing “revolvers lying on tables in my own home” and “shotguns loaded with buckshot, standing ready near the doors.”

The Bates family was also forced to shut down the State Press . After Daisy became involved in the civil rights struggle, white businesses stopped advertising in the paper, and it had to stop publishing because of lost revenue. L.C. Bates joined the paid staff of the NAACP in 1960.

Only three of the Little Rock Nine eventually graduated from Central High. Ernest Green became the school’s first black graduate in 1958. Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls Lanier graduated in 1960. Minnijean Brown Trickey was expelled from the school in February 1958, after several incidents, including one in which she dumped a bowl of chili on one of her tormentors. Throughout their time at Central High, Bates remained deeply concerned about their welfare, often intervening with school officials during conflicts.

After the success at Central High, Bates worked in voter registration campaigns for the Democratic National Committee, and President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to help administer his antipoverty programs. She revived the State Press in 1984, only to sell it three years later.

After Daisy Bates passed away on November 4, 1999, the state of Arkansas permitted her body to lay in state in the rotunda of the capitol. The third Monday in February has been established as an official state holiday in her honor, the Daisy Gatson Bates Holiday, making Arkansas the first state to honor an African American woman with a named holiday.

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