Daisy Bates’ name is synonymous with the struggle for civil rights in Little Rock. A street named in her honor bears testament to her role.
But, as years pass and memories fade, precious few know much about the woman who rose to national prominence during the 1957 school crisis.
President of the Arkansas NAACP and wife of L.C. Bates, editor of the Arkansas State Press, the leading black newspaper of the day, Bates became famous as mentor to the Little Rock Nine. The Nine, with the support of federal troops, desegregated Central High School despite Gov. Orval Faubus’ defiance of the U.S. Constitution.
But Bates’ story is not that simple.
An orphan from the mill town of Huttig, in Union County, Bates had a complicated personal life that was glossed over in the national press accounts of the era and in her own ghost-written book, “The Long Shadow of Little Rock.” Some members of the Little Rock Nine still believe the publicity Bates received — and she avidly sought that attention — overshadowed the love, protection and emotional support they received daily from their parents.
But if Bates’ story, like any human story, has many dimensions, her advocacy for social justice was a constant. It was demonstrated in the dramatic days of the Central crisis, during the slow progress of integration in the years that followed and in her field organizing for Democratic presidential candidates. Slowed by apparent strokes, she devoted many of her last days to helping the tiny, all-black Delta town of Mitchellville. There was ample reason that she overcame the sexism of the civil rights movment and was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington.
The details are compiled in unflinching detail in a new biography, “Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas,” by Little Rock lawyer Grif Stockley, whose previous work includes a history of the Elaine race massacres of 1919.
Stockley, staff attorney for the Arkansas affiliate of the ACLU, draws on archival material, contemporary accounts and new interviews to reconstruct Bates’ life, from Huttig to her financially distressed end and the continuing conflict over the things she left behind. The book, just published by the University Press of Mississippi, costs $30. It is excerpted here by permission.
The chapter that follows touches on many events post-1957, elements of a life little known to people today. There’s Daisy Bates’ divorce and remarriage. The Bates family’s surprising alliance with Orval Faubus. Her public bitterness, a sharp change from the patient image she cultivated in 1957. And there’s her emergence as a political figure with the help of Lyndon B. Johnson. The chapter ends with her declining health, a prelude to her “final crusade” in the Delta. — Editor
BY GRIF STOCKLEY
The national backdrop of the publication of “The Long Shadow of Little Rock” in 1962 was the violent confrontation between the Kennedy administration and Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi.
The battle on the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford over James Meredith’s admission into law school in the fall of 1962 made the crisis at Central High seem tame by comparison. Though the civil rights movement had moved well on down the road, with history being repeated so recently, “The Long Shadow of Little Rock” ’s publication date of Oct. 29 helped convince reviewers of its relevance. Bates’ sketchy and vague story of her upbringing and marriage to L.C. Bates provided just enough context for her battles at Central High, and reviewers accepted the book as a seamless account of the making of a civil rights heroine.
The New York Times Book Review critic praised “The Long Shadow of Little Rock” as having “a sort of journalistic integrity that makes the narrative as a whole believable and convincing.” Bates’ name would “almost certainly” go down in history as one of the “martyrs and fearless pioneers” of the civil rights movement. The names of the Little Rock Nine would also be enshrined, but they were almost an afterthought for reviewers. Bates had written sketches of each of the children (some longer than others but all positive and laudatory), but truly her book was taken as “The Daisy Bates Story.”
Some reviewers, as Eleanor Roosevelt did in the book’s foreword, remarked on the bitter tone that surfaced in the book’s last few pages. The great March on Washington was less than a year away, but the redemptive power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and deeds were already beginning to resonate in the hearts of those whites who deigned to care. A reviewer in The Churchman in St. Petersburg, Fla., after remarking on Bates’ “contempt” for those whites who had fought against her, wrote, “Ultimately, there must be love and forgiveness, as Martin Luther King reiterates.” Such words, when stripped of their context, seem too meek to fuel a movement that became as powerful as the tactics of nonviolence. One had to be there to experience fully the determination and persistence that undergirded marchers and leaders alike. Nothing would be more critical than keeping the movement nonviolent. Therein lay its strength, but it was not so simple.
WHITE AMERICANS GROW UNEASY
White Americans were becoming uneasy, and it was not just that their consciences were bothering them. Whites were already beginning to feel consciously afraid, and the term “Black Power” was not even in vogue. In what was perhaps the longest and most important review of her book, Robert E. Baker, a reporter for the Washington Post who remembered Bates in 1957 as a “courageous, charming, witty and sophisticated Negro leader with a deep faith in her fellow Americans and the Nation’s Democratic ideals,” was also disturbed by Bates’ anger. He commented that those positive qualities were in evidence in the book but that her bitterness was something new. If a black leader “of Mrs. Bates’ stature” could give way to “contempt and hostility,” then what was ahead for the country?
In retrospect, one understands that what had made Bates so appealing in 1957 to her supporters was the perception that she had infinite patience and no hatred of whites. Her ability to control her emotions in public was one of her greatest assets. In fact, only a few sentences at the end of “The Long Shadow of Little Rock” could be taken as “negative.” In general, the book was an uplifting reprise of Bates’ struggles against great odds, just what the American public had always enjoyed.
Her publisher and editor, Kenneth Rawson, pushed the book, as did others. Bates had a ready-made readership through the NAACP. Kivie Kaplan, a fellow board member of the national NAACP, offered to buy 250 copies “for gifts” if Bates would autograph them.
Though the David McKay Company had high hopes for the book, sales were ultimately a disappointment. The two royalty statements in Bates’ papers are for the six-month periods ending December 1963 and December 1965. The documents do not reveal the size of Bates’ original advance, but it probably was no more than $1,000. As mentioned previously, Bates had received $1,000 from Rawson before publication to pay insurance on her house in Little Rock. In any event, the royalty statement showed a “debit balance” of $1,325 at the end of 1965. Any dreams Bates had ever entertained of being able to survive even briefly off the earnings of the book turned out to be illusory.
The David McKay publicity department did an admirable job of getting attention for the book. Bates appeared on television in New York and Washington. Little Rock was not neglected either. “More than 200 persons” showed up at the Dunbar Community Center on Nov. 11 to have Bates sign their books. Two members of the Nine, Minnijean Brown and Thelma Mothershed, both students at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, were “guests of honor.” While in Arkansas, Bates also signed copies at the state NAACP convention in Pine Bluff. She would later say that sales of her book were hurt by the fact that bookstores in the South would not carry it, and doubtless that was true.
A BRIEF DIVORCE
Chris Mercer filed Daisy Bates’ complaint for divorce the last day of 1962. Her hopes for the book may have led her to go ahead with it. L.C.’s December letter had no effect and may have had the opposite one intended, reminding Daisy that her feelings about the marriage came as no surprise to her husband. Yet surely she must have done some soul-searching about the life she was giving up. In the fall of 1962 she received two letters from her former foster child, Clyde Lee Cross, who was aware her book was about to be published. How much contact Daisy had with Clyde after she and L.C. had given him up in the fall of 1957 is not known. Curiously, there is not, in all her papers, a single letter to him. It was not as if Clyde had been a child who had come to stay for a short while. Of all the decisions in her life, surely few were more painful than giving up the child she had raised for years. Bates had successfully kept Clyde’s whereabouts a secret (at least from the media and her enemies). In one of his letters to his “mother” in September 1962, Clyde, who would have been a teen-ager, reveals that he was living in Snow Lake, a hamlet in the Arkansas Delta. He mentions the “boys and girls,” leaving one to wonder if he was in some kind of orphanage. Tragically, the two letters from Clyde in Bates’ papers reveal a youngster both emotionally and educationally deprived. Bates would take in other children, and they would blossom under her attention. Though Clyde requested that a “bicycle” be sent to “snow lake ark Box 109,” it is most improbable that he got his wish. Bates had moved on, but it seems likely these two letters would have tugged at her heart and reminded her of a time when she and L.C. had shared the routine pleasures of a less glamorous life.
Arkansas’s divorce law makes it one of the easiest and quickest states in the country in which to dissolve a marriage. Bates’ complaint contained the minimum allegations necessary to obtain an Arkansas divorce. Certainly, there were no specifics, no allegations of adultery, which might have caused L.C. to hire his own lawyer and fire back. L.C.’s strategy was to act as if nothing had happened and try to see Daisy as much as possible. She might think she wanted him out of her life forever, but he had other ideas.
Daisy needed to support herself. L.C. had the only job in the state of Arkansas for which she was most qualified, working for the NAACP. Though she had written a book, she was no professional
VOTER REGISTRATION AND VIOLENCE
Applying for a job in the North was a slightly awkward matter since in the final pages of “The Long Shadow of Little Rock” Daisy had written she and L.C. would continue the battle “for the emancipation of the Negro in the South.” Given her loyalty and dedication, it is not surprising that her first job after her divorce was with the NAACP. Bates was given five weeks’ work at a salary of $110 per week to serve as a special “campaign director” for a membership drive in Rochester, N.Y., beginning in March. It was an inspired, if obvious, choice. With her feisty personality and her fame among NAACP regulars, who better than Bates to beat the drum outside the South? Gloster Current held out the possibility that if she did well in Rochester, the NAACP could “use her in another campaign.”
The job had its limitations. The national office would not pay for a hotel room (she would have to stay in private homes), so she would have no privacy. In the meantime, Bates had been busy networking and had managed to get an invitation to a White House reception on Lincoln’s birthday. There, along with other guests, she had her photograph taken with President Kennedy.
With a national campaign on the horizon in 1964, the Democrats needed Northern black votes in order to be successful. Eisenhower had managed to get through the occupation of Little Rock without the loss of the life of a single irate Southerner. Kennedy had not been so lucky in Oxford, and although Lyndon Johnson would be blamed for losing the “Solid South” in future elections because of his support for civil rights, the process was already well under way. The party might as well get something in return for its support. In a close campaign, the black vote would be decisive, and nobody knew it better than Kennedy, who had nearly lost the 1960 election because of stronger than expected black support for Richard Nixon.
Obviously successful in Rochester, Bates received another assignment from Current to go to Cincinnati. But with the help of Louis Martin, an influential Kennedy operative in the White House, Bates was hired by Phil Weightman of the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education (COPE) to register black voters.
Bates surely appreciated the irony of her labors. There was no doubt about how COPE or the NAACP expected a “newly registered voter” to vote — Democratic. But in her home state, Orval Faubus and the Democratic Party were still riding high. It did not keep her from going home occasionally, for, as noted earlier, Bates found time to slip down into Arkansas to remarry L.C. in the town of Benton in Saline County.
Daisy and L.C. would escape the violence of the civil rights era with their lives intact; others doing the same work would not. In neighboring Mississippi, Medgar Evers, the embattled NAACP field secretary, was murdered outside his home in 1963. A photograph of Daisy staring sorrowfully into Evers’ casket has survived with her papers. Given the brutality of Southern law enforcement, it was difficult for even someone as cool as Daisy to stay nonviolent. After Evers’ funeral, Jackson police handled a young demonstrator roughly. Bates told the media that the Jackson police “had provoked the trouble by mistreating a Negro girl of about fourteen.” The crowd got angry, she observed. “We have a tendency to condemn the freedom fighters when they show human anger ... I’m definitely non-violent, but at that moment I was ready to throw a bottle myself.”
It was not that Arkansas, especially the Delta, was not a violent place. As field secretary, L.C. investigated the cold-blooded lynching of a 17-year-old boy in West Memphis in July. A coroner’s inquest found nothing amiss, although the boy had been hunted down by whites and shot and then left to bleed to death. Other blacks would continue to lose their lives in encounters with white authorities in the Arkansas Delta. The difference was that Arkansas was mostly ignored by the movement, which concentrated its resources on the Deep South states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. SNCC was active in Delta towns such as Pine Bluff, Forrest City, West Helena, Marvell, and in the South Arkansas hamlet of Gould, but Arkansas was simply not a priority. White leaders, at least in Little Rock, wanted to avoid the publicity of 1957 and peacefully negotiated desegregation of public facilities, though it took litigation as well to complete the job.
THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON
Though Bates spent most of her time outside Arkansas during 1962-63, she was in Little Rock to make the bus trip to the March on Washington in August [where Bates would be the only woman who spoke on the program that included King’s famous “I have a dream” speech]. In L.C.’s September 1963 report to the national NAACP, he recorded that 80 people from Arkansas made the trip, taking chartered buses from Pine Bluff and Little Rock. Almost all were from Pine Bluff and Little Rock, but seven were from Crittenden County (West Memphis), where blacks had organized to protest the murder of the young teen-ager. According to L.C., three whites made the bus trip. Ozell Sutton remembered gratefully that Bates made it possible for him to ride the bus from Little Rock.
Bates, like most Americans, was depressed by President Kennedy’s murder on Nov. 22, 1963. Then on the payroll of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the national organization of the Democratic Party, but with the same job, she wrote a friend on December 19, “I do not have to tell you how the death of the President affected me. I have not been able to decide what my future will be.”
At year’s end in Little Rock, Bates did not see much to be cheerful about. About her husband, she wrote merely, “Nothing new with L.C. and I” except the snowstorm. “Faubus is still raising hell. ... I for one am not sad to see the year 1963 end.” It had been a stressful year. Divorce, remarriage, a new job — all the events psychologists warn about crowding into one time period. Another event occurred that year. Bates had turned 50 in November, and it had to have sobered her a bit. She had many years left to live, but she had made a fateful choice by remarrying L.C. Given what was to happen in 1964, it was the wisest decision she ever made, because though she had many friends, Daisy had no family but L.C. “Family” would appear magically out of the blue when she was much older and recognized and honored in Arkansas as a civil rights pioneer. Against the bright lights of New York, L.C. may no longer have excited her, but he loved her and would take care of her.
With the death of President Kennedy, Bates had good reason to question the value of what she was doing simply because of who had taken his place. Lyndon Johnson was a Southerner, and Bates had already had her fill of Southern politicians. It is impossible to re-create the dismay blacks must have felt when Johnson became president. They had not all fallen in love with Kennedy, but compared to what they expected from his successor, Kennedy’s administration really had seemed like Camelot for a brief shining moment.
Miracles never cease in American politics. Lyndon Johnson, despite all his monumental insecurities and the heavy-handedness that, when combined with his crude arrogance, could take a person’s breath away, was the genuine article when it came to civil rights for “Knee-Grows” (as he was careful to pronounce the word). As Martin Luther King Jr. had been saying, civil rights was a moral issue for the nation, and like no other American politician could have done or would ever do again, Johnson took up the cause. African Americans would later love Bill Clinton, another Southerner, but nobody went to bat for civil rights like Johnson during an era when doing so was thought to be political suicide for a Southerner. “Mr. Bates was crazy about Johnson,” Daisy told Elizabeth Jacoway.
Daisy may have been less personally enthralled with Johnson than L.C. was, but Johnson treated her well. She told Jacoway that when Johnson became president, he asked an aide, “Where’s Daisy Bates? They said she used to be around here.” And they said, “She is at home.” “Where’s home?” “In Little Rock. She’s staying in Little Rock.” He said, “Isn’t she working?” “You know she can’t get a job in Arkansas.” He said, “Well, get a reservation for her at the Mayflower, and call her. “
Bates remembered the call from the aide: “ ‘The President commands your presence on Thursday morning. I’m going to take you to his office at nine o’clock.’ And I thought he was kidding.”
American Airlines called and had a ticket for her. “And he [Johnson] was one of the nicest persons to work for. And he gave me a raise in salary. I think I was making for Kennedy about $10,000. And he raised it $2,000.”
There is evidence she did a good job for the DNC. She would be on the road three weeks and at home a week. A letter to Louis Martin from an admirer in March 1964 about her work in Chicago reads in part: “After meeting and listening to Mrs. Daisy Bates here in Chicago on several occasions, I felt that you and the Democratic National Organization should know how she inspired and motivated us here ... Meeting and seeing her in action with the people is something that anyone, who has been priviliged [sic] to have this experience, shall never forget.” The letter concluded, “Keep her traveling and spreading the good word.”
A more objective view of Bates during this period appeared in Jet in April. “Her name is no longer the magic it was in 1957 ... Some political pros remain unmoved when Daisy Bates grandly announces her presence.” Yet there were those who admired the way she rolled up her sleeves and got out the vote in Indianapolis. “Said one old pro who usually bites his tongue on praise: ‘She worked like hell.’ ” Bates was part of a team of workers, but according to the Jet article, the results were impressive. “In just over two months, 24,000 persons — about 14,000 of them Negroes — were registered to vote.”
The Jet article provided a picture of her life on the road. “Sandwiched between her two or three speeches a day (she made more than 50 speeches in 18 days in Chicago) and her energetic work for ‘the party,’ she manages to return to the hotel rooms that serve as her on-the-road headquarters. There a light gin and tonic seems to persuade the soreness from her slippered feet. Still svelte, still shapely, still attractive, Mrs. Bates slips into one of the big cushioned chairs.” Bates portrayed herself as still a second mother to the Little Rock Nine. Bates told Jet she heard from each of them at least once a month, “twice, or even three times a month.” Based on the letters in her papers, this was an exaggeration, and when Bates did hear from the Nine, the letters invariably were in conjunction with the financial aid that was still flowing from the NAACP for their college educations. This is not to say that the letters did not display affection for her, but it is stretching it to say the Nine actually considered Bates a “second mother.” The Little Rock crisis had been her claim to fame, and she did not hesitate to remind people about it. She dismissed her marital problems “with a regal flick of the wrist and the observation: ‘It was simply a misunderstanding. It happens in the best of families.’ ”
Although Bates always got good notices from the black press, the Jet article captured her persona with the words “regal” and “grand.” As Audre Hanneman wrote, when Bates walked into a room, she expected people to know who she was and was disappointed when she wasn’t “introduced at some event to which she had been invited; although this rarely happened.”
CAMPAIGNING AGAINST GOLDWATER
A campaign speech Bates made for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 survives in her papers. Surely written or vetted by leaders at the DNC, the speech was shameless in its use of hyperbole. Unable to attack Goldwater as personally prejudiced, the speech linked his conservative approach to government with racism in a way that today seems demagogic. At one point, the text reads: “If Goldwater is elected one would probably need a passport to enter the country of Mississippi.”
By then Mississippi had become a daily symbol for the worst excesses of white supremacy in the country, with the infamous murders of three civil rights workers. To get the campaign juices flowing, Bates had only to mention the words “Mississippi” and “Goldwater” in the same breath. She did the math for her audiences: A vote for Goldwater equaled a vote for states’ rights, and a vote for states’ rights equaled disaster for blacks. “If the ardent state right’s [sic] advocator, Goldwater, is elected, you will see the greatest exodus of Negroes, as well as many fair minded whites, out of the state of Mississippi, this country has ever witnessed.”
It was a speech designed to rouse blacks by scaring them, but Johnson’s presidential campaign was, of course, in many ways based on fear. What reader of a certain age can forget the ad the Democrats ran warning of a nuclear holocaust if Goldwater won? If Bates’ speech was any indication, in black wards the emphasis was not on voting for Johnson because he worked so hard to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (while Goldwater had voted against it) and promised more to come. Rather, the message was elect Goldwater and you protect lynching and the KKK. In fact, there were distinct political limits to federal intervention no matter who was going to be the president.
Johnson’s overwhelming mandate in November pleased Bates no end. She “arrived home from the campaign trail on November 4, extremely tired but estactic [sic] about the results of the election.” However, the results of the state election for governor were not pleasing at all: Faubus, running for a fifth two-year term, garnered an astonishing 86 percent of the black vote. The facts were that no matter how antiblack his rhetoric had been, he had always gotten the black vote; now that he was toning it down, he received even more. Faubus’ support by blacks was galling to L.C. and Daisy, but they were stuck with him. At the national civil rights level, Faubus still ranked high in the worst Southern governor pantheon, though Ross Barnett of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama were far ahead. It was especially a dilemma for L.C. because of his conservative approach to the civil rights movement. Though he and Roy Wilkins were not far apart (Wilkins had called for blacks to cease almost all demonstrations until after the November election), L.C. (like Wilkins) became increasingly out of step with the growing militancy of the rest of the civil rights movement. His reports to Gloster Current show he was openly contemptuous of the organizing challenges mounted by SNCC in the Arkansas Delta and the support given to it by the NAACP regional office. In commenting on an NAACP chapter in Gould in southern Arkansas, L.C. wrote, “The past three years it has been plagued by ‘Snick’ . . . for some reason that has never been made entirely clear, interference from the Regional Office sprung up and gave encouragement to the ‘Snick’ group. The branch is at a standstill.”
DEALING WITH FAUBUS
At the end of the day, L.C. still believed marches and demonstrations accomplished very little. The approach he took sparked controversy of its own, and Daisy was eventually drawn into it. As early as 1962 or 1963, L.C. had begun to deal with Faubus through the director of the state’s Employment Security Division to obtain jobs for blacks. The Arkansas Gazette reported in December 1965 that “Daisy and L.C. Bates were advising Faubus on the appointment for blacks.” The reporter found this arrangement “curious,” but Daisy coolly explained, “Of course we deal with the governor. He pulls the strings. He is the governor, and we go to him to get Negroes their fair share.” Though this tactic was pragmatic and resulted in some employment for blacks, it caused dissension in the NAACP.
The first half of 1965 Daisy was once again working for the national NAACP in the Midwest and East on voter registration campaigns.
In June she had come back to Arkansas to spearhead a statewide drive, a project dear to L.C.’s heart. To people who had known them both before 1957, it must have seemed like old times again. It appeared as if they were a team, just as they had been all those years at the State Press and at the beginning of the 1957 crisis, before Daisy became famous. Certainly, they presented themselves that way, and as far as carrying out the work of the NAACP, they were now working again in tandem. However, it is impossible to overlook how little time Daisy spent in Little Rock after their remarriage in 1963 until she finally retired in 1977, when she had become further debilitated by her illnesses.
At the campaign kickoff in Pine Bluff, Daisy appeared first and explained that under a new law, blacks would no longer have to continue to register each year. The poll tax was dead and gone. L.C. enthusiastically followed his wife by urging his listeners to “go to the polls in groups” and not just in “trickles.” “When they see you coming, they’re going to say, ‘Good God Almighty.’ ” With the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, L.C. saw a new day for blacks, but, typically, he warned them, “They won’t come out and give you anything. They won’t come out and offer you jobs. You’re going to have to prepare yourselves.”
Daisy Bates’ life changed forever on July 10, 1965. According to her neighbor Frankie Jeffries, Bates was looking at herself in a mirror in her home when she realized something was wrong. She called Jeffries and asked her to come across the street. Where L.C. was inside the house at that moment and why Daisy did not call him is not known, but Jeffries says she went across the street. She and L.C. immediately took Daisy to Baptist Hospital. On July 27 Daisy called her friend Ed Muse in New York from the hospital. He had received a letter from L.C. dated July 20 telling him that Daisy had recently been “rushed to the hospital” and had been diagnosed with “Pulmonary Thrombosis.” Muse, who was then working as life membership assistant for the NAACP national office, sent an alarming memo to Henry Lee Moon, director of public relations, saying in part, “Daisy called me this morning and discussed many things, even though she was quite incoherent. I think there is real cause for concern.” He copied Roy Wilkins and Gloster Current. On July 31 the national office sent out a press release announcing that Bates had been “stricken while in the midst of a statewide NAACP voter registration campaign she had organized.” She was reported to be “improving.” It made no reference to her diagnosis. In any event, Jeffries remembered that Bates “was hospitalized for almost a month.” Bates’ recovery was slow.
Without the cooperation of Bates’ estate, knowledge of her maladies is limited to the memories of others and references in her papers. Clearly, her future symptoms and treatment suggest that she possibly had several small strokes over the course of her life, but the timing of these events is unclear. At some point her speech would be affected.
Bates had been scheduled to go on vacation in Europe (apparently without L.C.) in July, but that was, of course, canceled. Her recovery was still under way in December, as noted by a letter L.C. wrote to Gloster Current. “Daisy is doing fairly well. She is still under the care of her physician and getting a big thrill in working with the youth.” It would take a while, but Daisy Bates was gathering her strength for one final crusade.