Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas

Article excerpt

Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas. By Grif Stockley. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Pp. x, 340. Acknowledgments, illustrations, notes, index. $30.00.)

In Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas, Grif Stockley paints a picture of a deeply flawed woman who led the NAACP in Arkansas during the crucial years of the Little Rock school desegregation crisis. A person whose origins remain cloaked in obscurity, Daisy Bates presented herself to the public both as a civil rights heroine and as a woman whose family life exemplified conventional mores. In fact, her relationship with her husband, L. C. Bates, departed from those norms in significant ways, and her success as a leader in 1950s Little Rock depended more on the efforts of others than she was willing to admit.

Stockley's research into Bates' early years reveals a woman whose parents' names and fates are hard to determine. The story of her mother's murder that she related in her 1962 autobiography (The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memoir) proved impossible to confirm with public records. Similarly, her accounts of her early relationship with her husband leave out the fact that he remained married to another woman for several years after the initiation of their relationship. Her motives in entering into that relationship remain obscure, though it is clear that L. C. enabled her to get out of the poverty and hopelessness that a life in Huttig, Arkansas, would have meant for a poorly educated African-American woman of her generation. In the early 1960s, Daisy Bates left for New York City, where she stayed for some time. Thereafter, she and L. C. divorced, each accusing the other of infidelity, and then remarried. Though Stockley acknowledges that Bates' opponents would have used information about her private life against her, he does not adequately place her life in the context of African-American women's history. As historian Darlene Clark Hine has noted, the sexual vilification and exploitation of black women has been so systematic and damaging in American history that they have developed a "culture of dissemblance" to preserve some measure of personal privacy and credibility for their public actions ["Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women" in Women's America: Refocusing the Past, ed. Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)]. Stockley's failure to acknowledge this context makes his personal revelations about her appear almost prurient.

A woman whose public confidence masked a considerable insecurity, Bates often overstated her role in the civil rights conflicts in these years. In fact, the most significant contribution of Stockley's biography is its illumination of contributions of many actors, most of them African Americans, to the civil rights struggle in Little Rock in the 1950s. …