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Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader From Arkansas
By Grif Stockley, University Press of Mississippi, cloth, $30.
Grif Stockley has made a worthy contribution to the historical literature on Arkansas, as well as the Little Rock Central High desegregation crisis, with his new biography. While the title may erroneously lead potential readers to think of Mrs. Bates as a civil rights superhero, the author begins the story of this extraordinarily complex woman with the one honor that no other female civil rights leader achieved and few remember: a speaking slot on the 1963 March on Washington program.
Stockley’s exhaustive research in probing every known aspect of Daisy Bates’ life reveals more about who she was not, rather than who she was. Investigating the landmarks of Bates’ life as she set forth in her autobiography “The Long Shadow of Little Rock” — growing up a half-orphan in the mill town of Huttig, following her mother’s rape and murder; her courtship and eventual marriage to the much older L.C. Bates; reporting for their weekly newspaper The State Press; and then her rise to fame as president of the Arkansas State Conference of Branches of the NAACP and mentor to the Little Rock Nine during the Central High crisis — led Stockley to uncover more falsehoods than truth.
Stockley presents a compelling case that Bates was an all-too-human being from humble origins who understood the pain of racial inequality and segregation and wanted to help end it. While she learned about the power of the press and politics from L.C., Daisy was not her husband’s puppet. L.C. was a curmudgeon and he made his opinions and views known through the written word. By contrast, Daisy never met a stranger. Attractive and stylish, she possessed the diplomatic skills and poise to carry the message of desegregation and racial equality forward to a larger audience in a non-threatening manner.
During the Central High crisis, Daisy became the photogenic and media-savvy spokeswoman for the Little Rock Nine and the Arkansas NAACP. While her gender obviously contributed to Daisy’s reputation as caretaker of the Little Rock Nine (something the Nine do not necessarily appreciate), her genius for staging press events and granting interviews to favorite reporters kept the story on the front pages of national newspapers for months.
The publicity from the Central High crisis took Daisy Bates away from Arkansas and the person she really was. It started with national speaking engagements for the NAACP (for whom she was now a board member) and national honors such as the Associated Press’ 1957 “Woman of the Year” in education, among others. In 1960, Bates temporarily moved to New York City to work on her autobiography but remained there after it was published. Little by little she reinvented herself, leaving those in her past behind, until L.C. did not recognize her and they divorced in 1963.
The final chapter of Daisy Bates’ life is not a particularly happy one. It began and ended in Little Rock where she returned to re-marry L.C. upon the realization that without him she was all alone. A stroke in 1965 reinforced her dependence upon him, and she remained reliant on her husband and others until her death in 1999.
Stockley does an admirable job of documenting the real life of someone who lived to create favorable appearances. His thorough understanding of power and racial politics in Little Rock successfully portrays the complexity of black society and Daisy Bates’ place in it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The reviewer is a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.