Bates, Daisy Lee Gatson (1913?–1999)
Daisy Lee Gatson Bates is best known for her role in the struggle to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. She and her husband, L. C. Bates, also published the newspaper the Arkansas State Press, which served the local Arkansas black community. Both Daisy and L. C. Bates were active members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well.
Daisy Lee Gatson was born in the sawmill town of Huttig, Arkansas, and was raised by adoptive parents Susie Smith and Orlee Smith, who was an employee at the local mill. The greatest trauma of Gatson's childhood took place when she learned that her birth mother had been raped and killed by three white men. Gatson was incensed that these criminals had not been brought to justice. In her autobiography, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, she suggests that this and other childhood experiences propelled her into her future role as a civil rights activist.
When Gatson was 15 years old, she met L. C. Bates, a traveling insurance salesman. After a lengthy courtship, the couple moved to Little Rock in 1941, where they founded the Arkansas State Press. The weekly newspaper proved to be a powerful advocate on behalf of the black community, as it publicized instances of police brutality and other injustices faced by black Arkansans.
Daisy Gatson and L. C. Bates married on March 4,1942. While working for the newspaper, Bates also began taking classes at nearby Shorter College and Page 65 | Top of ArticlePhilander Smith College. She also became increasingly involved in the local chapter of the NAACP and was named president of the Arkansas Conference of Branches in 1952.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the enforced segregation of schools unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Afterward, Bates channeled the majority of her energy towards securing the integration of public schools in her native Arkansas. Most famously, she became a confidant, mentor, and spokesperson for the group of students known as the Little Rock Nine, who integrated the city's working-class Central High School.
Although the local school board designed a very limited plan for integration, ultimately allowing only a handful of handpicked black students to enter the large urban high school, their plan was still met with stiff resistance. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the black students from physically entering the school. After a showdown between federal and state authorities, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used federal troops to make sure that the court-mandated integration would take place. However, even after the Little Rock Nine were reluctantly admitted to the school, the drama was not over. Large crowds of angry whites gathered outside the high school to heckle the black students, and a dedicated group of white members of the Central High School student body waged a yearlong campaign of harassment in an attempt to force the black students to withdraw.
During this ordeal, Bates met regularly with the students, frequently serving as a liaison between them, the national NAACP, the press, administrators of the high school, and the school board. She ultimately paid a high price for her visibility. Bates was the victim of constant threats, and her home was attacked by angry segregationists on more than one occasion. In addition, the crisis in Little Rock adversely impacted the Bates' newspaper. Many businesses withdrew their advertisements as a form of protest against the Bates' activism. Because of the ensuing economic hardship, the couple was forced to close the Arkansas State Press in 1959.
In the aftermath of the events in Little Rock, Bates became well known, one of the few prominent women to be frequently included in the pantheon of civil rights heroes. Capitalizing on her fame, in 1960, she published her well-received autobiography, The Long Shadow of Little Rock. In 1963, she spoke at the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington. Bates continued her activism when she moved to Mitchellville, Arkansas, becoming an advocate for the poor through the aegis of a federal anti-poverty program. In 1984, she realized one of her long-held dreams when she reopened the Arkansas State Press, managing the paper for four years before selling it in 1988.
For the rest of her life, she remained a beloved civil rights icon and participated in a wide variety of ceremonies honoring the Little Rock Nine and other pioneers of the movement. Bates died of a heart attack on November 4, 1999, but her legacy was not forgotten. Streets have been named after her as well as an elementary school. Perhaps most dramatically, the state of Arkansas has declared the third Monday of every February a holiday in her honor.
See also Civil Rights Movement .
Further Readings: Bates, Daisy. The Long Shadow of Little Rock. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007; Stockley, Grif. Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas.Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 2005.
Jennifer Jensen Wallach