Daisy Bates: Life of a Civil Rights Activist

Portrait of Daisy Bates, 1957

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Daisy Bates (November 11, 1914–November 4, 1999) was a journalist, newspaper publisher, and civil rights activist known for her role in supporting the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Bates and her husband were activists who devoted their lives to the civil rights movement, creating and running a newspaper called the Arkansas State Press that would function as a mouthpiece for Black Americans across the country and call attention to and condemn racism, segregation, and other systems of inequality. She was elected president of the NAACP Arkansas State Conference in 1952 and had a direct hand in the integration of Central High School in 1957. The students who led this integration, known as the Little Rock Nine, had Bates on their side; she was their advisor, a source of comfort, and a negotiator on their behalf throughout the chaos.

Fast Facts: Daisy Bates

  • Known for: Journalist, newspaper publisher, civil rights activist, and social reformer known for her role in supporting the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Also Known As: Daisy Lee Bates, Daisy Lee Gatson, Daisy Lee Gatson Bates, Daisy Gatson Bates.
  • Born: November 11, 1914 in Huttig, Arkansas
  • Parents: Hezekiah and Millie Gatson (biological), Orlee and Susie Smith (adoptive)
  • Died: November 4, 1999 in Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Education: Huttig, Arkansas public schools (segregated system), Shorter College in Little Rock, Philander Smith College in Little Rock
  • Published Works: The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memoir
  • Awards and Honors: Honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Arkansas, lied in state at the Arkansas State Capitol building after her death
  • Spouse: L.C. (Lucius Christopher) Bates
  • Notable Quote: "No man or woman who tries to pursue an ideal in his or her own way is without enemies."

Early Life

Bates was raised in Huttig, Arkansas, by adoptive parents Orlee and Susie Smith. When Bates was very young, her mother, Millie Gatson, was raped and murdered by three White men. Her father, Hezekiah Gatson, left the family following her death. Bates' adoptive parents had been friends of her father's. It wasn't until she was eight years old that Bates discovered what had happened to her mother and that her caregivers were not her biological parents. She found out from a boy in the neighborhood, who had heard from his parents, that something happened to her mother, and then her older cousin Early B. told her the full story. Three White men tricked Millie Gatson into leaving the house with them by claiming that her husband was hurt. Once they had her alone, they raped and killed her. Her adoptive father later explained that her mother was murdered because she was Black.

Bates' previously happy childhood was then marked by this tragedy. She was forced to come to terms with the harsh reality of being a Black American from a young age, and she was determined to find her mother's murderers and bring them to justice. Not long after she learned of her mother's murder, Bates encountered a White man who was rumored to have been "involved" in the murder, which Bates already suspected based on the guilty way he looked at her, likely reminded of his actions by the resemblance Bates bore to her mother. Bates often went out of her way to see this man and force him to face her.

Bates had faced discrimination all her life for the color of her skin—in school, in her neighborhood, and at nearly every public place—, but it wasn't until she learned of her mother's death that her outlook on race changed. She began to hate White people, especially adults. She slowly let go of White friends and resented being expected to do chores for White neighbors. On his deathbed, Orlee encouraged Bates, then a teenager, not to let go of her hatred but to use it to create change, saying:

"Don't hate white people just because they're white. 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—then try to do something about it, or your hate won't spell a thing."
Daisy Bates and husband L.C. watching television with concerned looks on their faces

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Journalism and Activism

In 1940, Daisy Bates married L.C. Bates, a friend of her father's. L.C. was a journalist, but he had been selling insurance during the 1930s because journalist positions were hard to come by. When they met, L.C. was 27 and Daisy was 15, and Daisy knew that she would marry him one day. The two moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, after their wedding and became members of the NAACP. Daisy began taking classes at Shorter College in business administration and public relations.

Together L.C. and Daisy Bates founded a newspaper in Little Rock called the Arkansas State Press. The couple decided that this publication would push boundaries and make readers think about race relations in the United States, not make them feel comfortable by glossing over issues or ignoring them altogether. As a result, the paper was confrontational and controversial from its 1941 debut. A year after it started, Daisy published a story covering the killing of a Black man by a White police officer. This local case gave details about how a Black soldier on leave from Camp Robinson, Sergeant Thomas P. Foster, was shot by a local policeman after questioning a group of officers for the arrest and subsequent beating of a fellow Black soldier.

The Arkansas State Press covered topics from education to criminal justice without backing down from criticizing politicians, shining a light on injustice around the country, and otherwise casting blame where its publishers felt it was due. It wasn't long before this newspaper became a powerful force for civil rights, with Daisy the voice behind many of the articles. But although Black Americans praised this groundbreaking newspaper, many White readers were outraged by it and some even boycotted it. One advertising boycott nearly broke the paper, but a statewide circulation campaign increased the readership and restored its financial viability. However, this wasn't the last time the Bates' would be the target of malice for speaking up. In August of 1957, a stone was thrown into their home that read, "Stone this time. Dynamite next."

Daisy Bates holding a sign that reads "God gave his only son for the freedom of mankind, NAACP"
As an active member of the NAACP, Daisy Bates could often be seen picketing and protesting in the pursuit of equality for Black Americans.

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School Desegregation in Little Rock

In 1952, Bates expanded her activism career when she became the Arkansas branch president of the NAACP. At the time, the NAACP, with the help of prominent lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, was actively working for policy reform in education that would desegregate schools for good. In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, the NAACP took the Little Rock school board to court to force them to follow through on this ruling. Then the NAACP, including Bates, and board members worked to design a plan for supporting the integration of Little Rock Schools. For the NAACP, this meant recruiting students that would win favor in the eyes of the Little Rock school board and walk bravely into a school that was reluctant to accept them.

In September of 1952, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas arranged for the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Black students from entering Central High School. In response to this defiance as well as protests already taking place, President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to allow their entrance. On September 25, 1952, the nine students were escorted by Army soldiers into Central High amid angry protests. The next month, Bates and others were arrested for violation of the Bennett Ordinance, which required organizations to disclose all details about their membership and finances. Bates volunteered herself and was fined for not turning over NAACP records, but she was let out on bond soon after.

Daisy Bates and seven of the Little Rock Nine students standing together in front of the White House
Daisy Bates poses for a picture with seven students from the Little Rock Nine after helping to integrate the school in 1957.

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After the Little Rock Nine

In 1958, Bates and the Little Rock Nine were honored with the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement. Bates and her husband continued to support the students of the newly-integrated Little Rock high school and endured no small degree of personal harassment for their actions. At the end of 1952, a bomb was thrown into their home. By 1959, advertising boycotts finally succeeded in forcing them to close their newspaper.

But Bates continued working for change. In 1962, she published her autobiography and account of the Little Rock Nine, The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memoir. The introduction was written by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. After finishing her book, Bates worked for the Democratic National Committee and for antipoverty efforts under President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration until she was forced to stop by a stroke in 1965. She then worked in Mitchellville, Arkansas, from 1966 to 1974, as a community organizer for the Mitchellville OEO Self-Help Project. L.C. died in 1980 and Bates started the Arkansas State Press again in 1984, again as a part-owner. She continued consulting for the publication even after she sold her share in 1987.

Newspaper article showing Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine being awarded the NAACP's 1958 Spingarn Medal
Daisy Bates and the students of the Little Rock Nine receiving the NAACP's Spingarn Award for highest achievement in 1958.

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Death

75 Black students volunteered to join Little Rock's Central High School. Of these, nine were chosen to be the first to integrate the school—they became known as the Little Rock Nine. Bates served as an advisor to these students, helping them to understand what they were up against and what to expect when the time came for them to join the school. She insisted that NAACP officials accompany them on the day they walked into the school for the sake of their safety and kept the students' parents, who were justifiably concerned about their children's lives, informed about what was going on.

Daisy Bates died at the age of 84 in 1999 in Little Rock, Arkansas after suffering numerous strokes. Her body was chosen to lie in state in the Arkansas State Capitol building, on the second floor. Governor Orval Faubus, who had opposed integration during the Little Rock Crisis and throughout his political career, had an office on this very floor of the building.

Legacy

Bates is remembered for her key role in the Little Rock integration of Central High School, her involvement with the NAACP, and her career as a civil rights journalist with the Arkansas State Press.

In 1984, Bates was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Her autobiography was reprinted by the University of Arkansas Press in 1984, and she retired in 1987. In 1988, she was commended for outstanding service to Arkansas citizens by the Arkansas General Assembly. In 1996, she carried the Olympic torch in the Atlanta Olympics. Finally, her Little Rock home, which can still be visited, was made into a National Historic Landmark in 2000.

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