Daisy Bates: Life of a Civil Rights Activist

Portrait of Daisy Bates, 1957

Afro American Newspapers / Getty Images

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 an 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: Orlee and Susie Smith, Hezekiah and Millie Gatson (biological)
  • 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, 1957 Woman of the Year Award by the National Council of Negro Women, 1958 Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (shared with Little Rock Nine students)
  • 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 parents Orlee and Susie Smith, who adopted her when she was young. When Bates was a child, her biological mother, Millie Gatson, was raped and murdered by three White men. Her biological father, Hezekiah Gatson, left the family following her death. Bates' parents had been friends of her birth father's. It wasn't until she was eight years old that Bates discovered what had happened to her biological mother and that she was adopted by her parents. She found out from a boy in the neighborhood, who had heard from his parents, that something happened to her biological mother, and then her older cousin Early B. told her the full story. Three White men tricked her birth mother into leaving the house with them by claiming that her husband was hurt. Once they had her alone, they raped and killed her. Her father later explained that her birth 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 biological mother's murderers and bring them to justice. Not long after she learned of her birth 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 biological mother. Bates often went out of her way to see this man and force him to face her. However, none of her biological mother's rapists and murderers were convicted. Some scholars question the validity of this story and wonder whether Bates fabricated this backstory for herself to show the world she'd overcome something tragic or conceal a grim past that might negatively impact her carefully maintained image of "respectability," but this is the story Bates tells in her memoir, "The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memoir."

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 biological 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 when Bates was a teenager, Bates' father encouraged her 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

Bettmann / Getty Images

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 journalism 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. Some speculate that the two began an affair while L.C. was still married to his former wife, Kassandra Crawford. Daisy and L.C. 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 police officer after questioning a group of officers about 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." More than once, members of the Ku Klux Klan demanded that the Bates "go back to Africa" and burned crosses in their yard.

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. This involved 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 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board ruling, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus arranged for the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Black students from entering Central High School. In response to this defiance as well as to protests already taking place, President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to allow their entrance. On September 25, 1957, 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.

Years after the desegregation of Central High school, one of the Little Rock Nine students, Minniejean Brown Trickey, stated in an interview that she felt Bates accepted more praise for her part in the event than she should have. It was her belief that Bates overstated and oversold her role, which was not as involved with the students as it was made out to be, and that the students' parents should have been the ones who were called on to make statements, praised for their bravery, and named heroes.

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. In 1963, Daisy and L.C. Bates divorced and remarried just a few months later. This same year, Bates was the only woman who spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, her speech entitled "Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom." This was originally slated to be delivered by a man. The organizing committee for the march consisted of only one woman, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who convinced the committee to let a woman speak after much resistance by the other members, all of whom were men. Bates had been invited to sit on the stage, one of only a few women asked to do so, but not to speak. On the day of the march, Bates stood in for Myrlie Evers, who could not get to the stage to make her speech due to traffic.

After finishing her book, which won an American Book Award following its reprint in 1988, Bates worked for the Democratic National Committee and for antipoverty efforts under President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration until she was forced to stop after suffering 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 back up 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.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Death

Seventy-five 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. This is the accomplishment for which she is best known, but is far from her only civil rights achievement.

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, making her the first woman and the first Black person to do so. Governor Orval Faubus, who had opposed integration during the Little Rock Crisis and throughout his political career, had an office on this floor.

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. She received many rewards and recognitions for her work after the Little Rock integration including the title of Woman of the Year in Education from the Association Press in 1957 and the Woman of the Year Award from the National Council of Negro Women in 1957.

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. Her Little Rock home, which can still be visited, was made into a National Historic Landmark in 2000. Finally, the state of Arkansas is planning to replace a statue commemorating a Civil War Confederate with a statue of Daisy Bates.

Bates' legacy illuminates the struggles many activists who were women faced during the civil rights movement. Though the intersectionality of feminism and Black civil rights is undeniable, women's rights and Black rights were often regarded as separate entities—some Black civil rights activists supported women's rights, others didn't. Likewise, some women's rights activists supported Black civil rights and some didn't. This meant that the efforts of women fighting for Black rights often went unnoticed because activists who were women were dismissed by activists who were men, and major players like Bates were given much less recognition than they deserved. They were not typically chosen for leadership roles, invited to speak at rallies and events, or picked to be the faces of different movements. Today, this inequality is reflected in the fact that Daisy Bates is not a well-known name despite her close involvement in one of the biggest developments in civil rights history, desegregation in American education.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Daisy Bates: Life of a Civil Rights Activist." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/daisy-bates-biography-3528278. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, July 31). Daisy Bates: Life of a Civil Rights Activist. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/daisy-bates-biography-3528278 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Daisy Bates: Life of a Civil Rights Activist." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/daisy-bates-biography-3528278 (accessed December 7, 2021).