Adventures in Feministory: Civil Rights Activist and Writer Daisy Bates
Brown vs. Board of Education—the Supreme Court decision that ruled school segregation unconstitutional—passed in 1954, but turning legislature into action took several years to transpire. It wasn't until 1957 that nine black students, already enrolled at Little Rock Central High, began their first day of school, only to be met with an angry crowd and the Arkansas National Guard. The governor of Alabama, Orval Faubus (names don't get much more evil-sounding than that) prevented the students from entering the school. It took a presidential intervention on the part of Eisenhower to send the National Guard to escort the students. Behind the scenes though, was Daisy Bates.
Bates was at the forefront of the civil rights movement in Arkansas—she was president of the NAACP state chapter and her husband, L. C. Bates, was its regional director, a total civil-rights power couple. The two also ran the Arkansas State Press, which started in 1941 and grew to the largest black newspaper in the state. Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, said "Daisy Bates was the poster child of black resistance. She was a quarterback, the coach. We were the players," in an NPR piece on Bates in 2007. Her house became the headquarters for the Little Rock integration project, and Bates acted as a mentor for the students.
The State Press had always covered black issues and put the emerging Civil Rights movement forefront—garnering advertising boycotts that threatened to bankrupt the paper several times. (And after Bates' high-profile involvement with Little Rock integration—she was more recognizable than Martin Luther King, Jr., locally—the newspaper did go under). You can read some of Bates' writing online. Her affecting piece "Elizabeth Eckford Goes to School"—Eckford is the girl in the iconic Little Rock Nine photograph—is an account of one fifteen-year-old girl's absolutely harrowing experience encountering the mob at Central. And thanks to the Southern Oral History Program, you can listen to a two-hour interview with Bates from 1976 that covers the Little Rock integration and her continuing activism (transcript available).
Bates went on to work for the Democratic National Committee. She also was on President Lyndon Johnson's committee to work on anti-poverty policy. Her autobiography, The Long Shadow of Little Rock (originally published in 1962 with a forward by Eleanor Roosevelt) was reprinted in 1986 and won the American Book Award. She moved back to Arkansas in 1965, where she lived until she passed in 1999.
Daisy Bates is just one of the many activists we should remember on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but who are often forgotten by history. As Melissa Harris-Perry wrote in her Nation article ""How Barack Obama is like Martin Luther King, Jr."
[The] invisibility of women activists is neither accidental nor inevitable. Despite his sweeping, visionary, social theorizing, King had surprisingly little imagination about how the extraordinary women in the movement could share leadership and accolades with the male leaders. He often relegated his women peers to supporting roles and backstage efforts. King refused to publicly address gender discrimination and often argued that women's issues were distracting to the work of civil rights.
This piece originally appeared on the Bitch blogs on January 17, 2011.
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