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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 …”

Daisy and L.C. Bates became a textbook case of what happened to black people in Arkansas who dared to challenge the status quo. Harassed almost nightly (their home was repeatedly fire bombed), the couple lost their livelihood after an orchestrated campaign of harassing news vendors and withdrawing advertising put the State Press out of business in the fall of 1959.

As spokesperson for the nine black students who broke the color barrier at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 and the litigation enveloping desegregation, Daisy Bates had more help than she later acknowledged. Not everyone, including some of the Little Rock Nine, agreed that she deserved her title as “mentor” to the students. The truth is often messy, but the fact remains that Daisy and L.C. Bates shone as beacons of personal courage and commitment at a time when it was often in short supply.

But for what?

Though the Women's Emergency Committee helped roused the community to reopen Little Rock's public high schools in 1959 — they were closed for the 1958-59 academic year — desegregation was basically dead in the water in Little Rock and would remain a token movement until the 1970s.

Daisy Bates had written in her memoir that, before the school crisis of 1957, “Race relations in the city had been relatively calm and improving,” albeit with the understanding that blacks humbly accepted whatever whites chose to give them. The efforts of much of the white power structure in Little Rock over the last 50 years to keep black people segregated and, literally, in their place are difficult to ignore. Historian John A. Kirk argues, “Without doubt, city planning policy shaped race relations more fundamentally over the long term than the short-term effects of the school crisis.”

U.S. District Judge Henry Woods' order in 1984 consolidating the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts eventually was overturned, even as the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld Woods' findings of fact: “The housing authorities, lending institutions, realtors and others had acted in collusion to create segregated neighborhoods with the major impact of steering blacks to Little Rock and North Little Rock and steering whites to the Pulaski County School District.”

Aside from discrimination in housing and schools, blacks in Little Rock had other reasons to distrust the white community. Black businesses and other institutions, including churches on vibrant West Ninth Street, enjoyed financially rewarding times in the 1940s and earlier. The decision of the white power structure to run the Wilbur D. Mills Freeway through the heart of the black business community was not taken lightly. As historian Berna Love wrote, “[M]any blacks felt like there was a ‘master plan' or ‘plot' to rid the city of the West Ninth Street black business district.”

In her book, “End of the Line: a History of Little Rock's West Ninth Street,” Love documents how Ninth Street as a black business community began to die in 1960.

Whatever their feelings about the decline of Ninth Street, blacks could only resent the continuing roadblocks whites threw up to thwart school integration in the 1950s and '60s. Bad-faith efforts on the part of the Little Rock School Board (and others throughout the South) served to delay school integration for as long as possible. Finally, in the early 1970s, the Supreme Court ended the charade with instructions to eliminate the vestiges of separate school systems with cross-town busing.

Busing was no one's remedy of choice. John Walker, who had become the state's leading civil rights attorney with a central role in Little Rock's long-running desegregation case, told a white audience in October of 1971: “The real problem is that we live apart — not only black apart from white, but rich from middle class and middle class from poor. It is necessary to reunite the city, just as the schools are reunited. Housing integration is the answer to elimination of busing [which is an] … artificial tool at best.”

Walker traced the problem to the groups that ran the city and influenced its growth patterns, including the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, the Fifty for the Future business organization, and those who controlled the financial institutions. Little Rock was being divided into an expanding western section and an eastern part populated by blacks and poor whites. The development of west Little Rock allowed wealthier whites to escape racial problems, especially if they could afford to send their children to the newly created Pulaski Academy.

Implicit in Walker's message was that public and private policy in Little Rock should merge into a vision of the future strongly influenced by racial integration. At the very least, pubic policy should not be placed in the service of those who stood to enrich themselves by avoiding integration through fleeing central Little Rock and creating new neighborhoods out west.

But it was not to be. Blacks who moved to the city were steered to black areas. Subtle and not so subtle forms of block-busting began to appear in the early 1970s as whites moved west. The real estate agents pitching west Little Rock, however, had not counted on the federal judiciary's willingness to attempt to make the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of 1954 and 1955 outlawing segregation and implementing desegregation a reality. Cross-town busing of both blacks and whites to achieve racial parity became a reality in Little Rock and, quickly, a reason to flee the Little Rock school system.

As in every jurisdiction that used this tool to desegregate schools, busing was wildly unpopular in Little Rock, especially with whites who had other options. Caroline Proctor, an educator, wrote that “cross-town busing of high school students during the 1971-72 school year coincided with a decrease of 1,256 in white enrollment and an increase of 218 in black enrollment.” During the next school year, when the Little Rock School District began to bus intermediate-grade students, it lost 1,487 white students and gained 95 black students.

Where were whites going? Some remained in Pulaski County but sent their children to private Catholic schools, which began to experience record enrollments. By the 1988-89 school year, 8,961 white children were attending private schools in the county. The minority enrollment of these schools was 484. Other whites who had been in the Little Rock School District were moving outside Pulaski County. Conway, in Faulkner County, and Bryant, in Saline County, began to mushroom.

Even such a stalwart of integration as Daisy Bates commented about busing: “Of course, I don't want it. But if they didn't have busing [as an excuse], they'd have some other reason.”

The experience of both races involved in the efforts to desegregate the Little Rock School District has been a painful clash of cultures from the onset. In 1981, the Arkansas Gazette examined the increasing racial imbalance in the Little Rock School District in a three-part series titled “Turmoil in the Schools.” The district's white enrollment had dropped from a high of 17,654 in 1963-64 to just 6,740 in 1981-82. In that same time span, the percentage of black enrollment had risen from 29 percent to 66 percent. As one unidentified black parent complained, “It seems that we have come full circle and are back where we started, still having to fight for something as basic as an education for our children, still hassling over something so trivial as the color of one's skin.”

Many white Arkansans did not see the problems of school integration so simply. In 1975, Dr. Harold D. Algee, principal of Dunbar Junior High School for four years, said he was leaving the School District for a job in Mountain View chiefly because he had been unable to demand and expect discipline from black students at Dunbar, who accounted for 56 percent of the enrollment. He complained of black students “intimidating” white students for money.

The rise of gangs presented a new problem for schools in the 1990s, not to mention for neighborhoods where they thrived, often by drug trafficking. Blacks in Little Rock, themselves the victims of most of the crime and murders, were troubled by the spike in killings. While being interviewed for the Dunbar Project in 1994, Christabel Graham Eatmon volunteered, “We are very spiritual people, and that spirit now has been broken and I think that has contributed to a lot of the crimes and the meanness and all this killing and stuff that's going on in our community.”

Blacks in Little Rock began to question the value of the efforts to integrate the community. In “Bitters in the Honey: Tales of Hope and Disappointment Across Divides of Race and Time,” author Beth Roy, a sociologist, revealed significant hidden costs to the black community through her interviews of Arkansas black residents in the 1990s. Though discrimination against blacks in the rental and sale of housing remained, many of the black elite had found their way out of their old neighborhoods.

Mahlon Martin was one of those who left. Martin, now deceased, was the first black city manager of Little Rock, and also served as executive director of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and as Gov. Bill Clinton's director of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration,

Martin related how he had begun to question whether integration had been a good thing for the black community. With the exception of their churches, blacks had been absorbed “into a larger community,” he said, but at the cost of giving up black institutions, mainly the schools that blacks had once controlled and for that they had set ethical and moral standards. As a result of integration, “We've taken the moral leadership out of — in large part, not completely — but out of the minority community. It's kind of like creaming; I mean, those can afford to get out, get out ...”

Martin said that he had not seen the benefits of integration for his own children, who were attending Central at the time.

“I sensed that there was as much segregation within the school as there was when I went to school with two separate schools,” Martin said. “Clearly, they associated primarily with kids of their own color.”

Grif Stockley is a lawyer and content specialist at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library. His nine books include a biography,” Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas,” and the new “Race Relations in the Natural State,” a scaled-down version of a forthcoming book on the racial history of Arkansas.

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