Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Legacy of Daisy Bates

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Legacy of Daisy Bates

Article excerpt

ON NOVEMBER 4, 1999, ARKANSAS and America lost a freedom fighter when Daisy Bates died at the age of eighty-four.1 Fortunately, Daisy Bates's efforts for justice and equality had received the recognition they deserved during her lifetime. She was praised by Eleanor Roosevelt, commended by the Arkansas General Assembly, and honored at a conference in Little Rock in September 1997 marking the fortieth anniversary of the integration of Central High School, an earthshaking event in which she had played a central role.2 In death, she received further recognition for her activism in the name of humanity. Her heroism was lauded by President Bill Clinton, by Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, even by an old segregationist foe, Jim Johnson. Daisy Bates became the first woman and first African American to lie in state in Arkansas's state capitol.3

But how will Mrs. Bates be remembered over time? What will we remember most about her? How did her actions (and the operative word here is actions) have a lasting impact on the way we live? Daisy Bates will surely be remembered for her courage in withstanding verbal threats, verbal abuse, and physical danger in her efforts to make room for everyone within the framework of American democracy. If we say it once, we say it a thousand times in our history classes, African Americans in general have been consistent in pushing America to live up to its promise of equality. Daisy Bates lived that experience in assisting nine youths (Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls, Terrance Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown, and Thelma Mothershed) to attend the once all-white Central High in Little Rock. She played a leadership role within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, serving as President of the Arkansas Conference of NAACP branches between 1952 and 1961. With her husband, L. C. Bates, she ran the State Press, a weekly newspaper outspoken in its denunciation of prejudice and segregation. And though she suffered a stroke in 1965, she was subsequently active in bringing community services and federal antipoverty aid to a small town in the Arkansas delta, Mitchellville. These activities surely touched the lives of people in Arkansas, but they were also of broader consequence, both reflecting and helping to accelerate a growing national movement.4

The struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, often termed the Second Reconstruction, had roots in other periods of America's past. The AfricanAmerican experience in the United States has generally been one of resistance to oppression and exploitation. The Civil War ushered in the revolutionary change of freedom for four million people of African descent, but the incomplete promises of Reconstruction dictated that if black people were ever to exercise their constitutional rights, they had to continue to demand "freedom" and the federal government's enforcement of the Constitution. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, white Americans found new ways to restrict African Americans' social, economic, and political lives. Black resistance and the struggle for equality, therefore, have had to be an ongoing effort. As Vincent Harding has suggested, the African-American struggle for freedom and justice, pushed forward by inflexible oppressors, evolved into a movement that is ever flowing like a river, one that yet flows in the twenty-first century.5

Daisy Bates was aware of that history of struggle and exemplified key elements of it.6 Blacks' twentieth-century struggle relied on a tradition (an evolving heritage) of inner strength, or what is generally referred to as initiative and courage-qualities that even her critics granted that Daisy Bates possessed in abundance. More specifically, Bates serves as a leading example of the key role women have played in the civil rights movement, a role to which historians have only begun to accord prominent recognition and systematic study (the role and participation of children is yet to be adequately addressed). …

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