What Would Daisy Bates Say? 

DAISY BATES: Attractive, charming and tough as nails.
  • DAISY BATES: Attractive, charming and tough as nails.

Daisy Bates was in high cotton in December 1957. As president of the Arkansas Conference of Branches of the NAACP and a newly named national board member, she had been to New York in October for a rally with NAACP head Roy Wilkins and baseball great Jackie Robinson.

A photograph distributed worldwide showed her having tea with New York Gov. Averell Harriman and his wife. She held several press conferences about the constitutional crisis three months earlier at Little Rock Central High School from her suite at the famed Algonquin Hotel. Before the end of the year, The Associated Press named her Woman of the Year in Education. Considering Queen Elizabeth was “Woman of the Year,” it was hard to be in better company.

In interview after interview — and in her memoir, “The Long Shadow of Little Rock” — Daisy Bates cast herself as a “lady.” The black press and liberal white press happily obliged with story-book accounts of her astonishing rise to a hallowed place in civil rights history.

In fact, no historian ever documented her claim to a high school education, nor her memoir's account of her birth mother being raped and murdered and the body thrown into a mill pond. Her own papers counter the fairy-tale romance with husband L.C. Bates as described in “The Long Shadow of Little Rock,” revealing, instead, that the couple had a long-running affair while L.C. was married to another woman. Incensed by Daisy Bates' selection as “Woman of the Year” in 1957, the Arkansas Democrat ran a copy of her arrest record showing that she had given her last name as “Bates,” when she had been stopped with L.C. by the police in Louisiana in 1934. When questioned about it, she said the article was mistaken.

Neither Daisy Bates nor L.C. Bates were about to give anything to their numerous enemies, white or black.

The real-life Daisy Bates proved more interesting and courageous than any icon shaped by hero worship. She succeeded with sheer force of will and determination. Attractive, charming and possessed of a native intelligence, Daisy Bates also could be tough as nails. She once told a white friend, Edwin Dunaway, that the executive board of the Urban League was “just a bunch of niggers who want to sit next to white folks once every two weeks.”

L.C. Bates was both husband and tutor. A self-educated newsman, he was much more knowledgeable than his wife about what was happening in Arkansas and the world. Theirs was not an easy relationship. He was older and domineering. Daisy Bates resented his heavy hand, as evidenced by the time she spent away from him even after she was no longer famous. But mutual friends say he adored her, even after their brief divorce when his mother revealed in a letter that she had heard rumors that Daisy was having an affair in New York with a white man. They soon re-married, in 1963, and L.C. Bates apparently was reconciled to an alliance rather than a conventional marriage. For her part, Daisy Bates needed her husband's unshakable commitment.

By this time, L.C. Bates, as the NAACP field representative in Arkansas, had grown increasingly out of step with the mainstream civil rights movement. An example was his negotiating with Gov. Orval E. Faubus about jobs for blacks. Far more conservative than his wife, L.C. Bates had little if any use for the marches and boycotts triggered by student-led sit-ins at white businesses in North Carolina in 1960. As the civil rights movement entered its most-decisive phase with the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the NAACP in Arkansas was little more than an empty shell with nothing in its treasury. By 1972, L.C. Bates felt that the movement had accomplished all it could and told the Arkansas Gazette: “The average Negro, you see, instead of trying to improve himself, is standing around begging and complaining. … The Negro has more prejudices than the white man …”



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