Discovering Mrs. Daisy Bates

U.S. Embassy, Kingston Documentary Screening Serves Much Food for Thought

Owing to her relentless efforts to desegregate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 the United States of America was set on fire.

Eventually an Executive Order was issued by the President of the United States Dwight Eisenhower deploying 10,000 American soldiers to the small town of Little Rock, to uphold the rights of 9 vastly outnumbered and defenceless African-American students.

06 Sep 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA --- Elizabeth Eckford ignores the hostile screams and stares of fellow students on her first day of school.  She was one of the nine negro students whose integration into Little Rock's Central High School was ordered by a Federal Court following legal action by NAACP. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
06 Sep 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA — Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock 9 walks away from an angry crowd that had gathered to prevent the entry of the 9 students from entering the all-white Central High School after a lawsuit brought by the Bates-headed Arkansas NAACP resulted in a Court Order that the school be desegregated | Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The story is one of a mythical magnitude. The images of the black students, first being turned away by the Arkansas National Guard amidst the vitriolic jeering of rabid racists are harrowing. The images of the Little Rock 9 – the name by which the group will forever be remembered – being escorted by 10,000 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division in full army fatigue still speak volumes.

How is it even possible therefore, that in the retelling of the American Civil Rights struggle and in the popular celebrations of its major contributors, so very little is said or known – if anything at all – about the central force behind the comprehensive protest effort that etched the Little Rock 9 forever in the cannons of world history and paved the way for countless blacks in the United States to attend desegregated schools today?

That is exactly the sort of question that film-maker Sharon La Cruise seeks to answer in her documentary on the forgotten civil rights legend, Mrs. Daisy Lee Gatson Bates.

I had the privilege of viewing the documentary exactly one week ago, at the Grand Atrium, United States Embassy, Kingston. For a person who prides himself on having good grasp of history, the film was remarkably eye-opening.

Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock, is an audacious attempt to catalogue the indefatigable efforts of an overlooked, underrated and much misunderstood but altogether unrelenting woman.

Patrons gathered at the Grand Atrium of the United States Embassy, Kingston to view the riveting documentary "Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock", which was  shown in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington in 1963. | Phot by US. Embassy
Patrons gathered at the Grand Atrium of the United States Embassy, Kingston to view the riveting documentary “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock”, which was shown in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington in 1963. | Photo by US. Embassy

The film, viewed by a large audience under the auspices of the American Ambassador to Jamaica Pamela Bridgewater, was shown in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Historic March on Washington in August 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Delivered his famous “I Have A Dream Speech.”

Bates was one of only 3 female speakers at the historic March 50 years ago – a fact virtually lost to history, but highlighted by the film.

“Daisy Bates had to march with the wives” – the one line opener in the New York Times article The Women Behind the Men, published in 2007, just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock school desegregation movement, appropriately sums up one of the most poignant themes of the film: the place of women in the American Civil Rights struggle.

The film is worth seeing for its brave look at the complex beast that is inequality, by highlighting the subtle and at times overt ways in which female players in the Civil Rights Movement were sidelined – or at the very least, not rewarded with equal respect or recognition as their male counterparts. A sad fact that may explain, to some extent, why Bates’ name is so little known today.

"Daisy Bates was a complex, unconventional, and largely forgotten heroine of the civil rights movement who led the charge to desegregate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957." A film by Sharon LaCruise.
“Daisy Bates was a complex, unconventional, and largely forgotten heroine of the civil rights movement who led the charge to desegregate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.” – PBS  A film by Sharon LaCruise.

Obscurity aside, the story of Daisy Bates is phenomenal.

After the 1957 Brown v Board of Education decision was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court ordering that American schools be desegregated – no one budged to act.

The U.S. Government didn’t move to implement the Order of the court and it was manifest that those opposed to segregation would not lightly assent to the Court’s position.

The onus to integrate therefore fell entirely on the black population. Outnumbered and terrified by the ominous threats of white supremacists that “blood would flow” if any attempt was made to integrate – most members of the black population were in no hurry to take up their so-called “right”.

Bates, President of the Arkansas N.A.A.C.P. at the time, took up the challenge.

She campaigned, first to the members of the black community to convince them to consider integration. She sued the local school board when it opposed desegregation. She organized the students themselves through the application and admission process and then through the storms of violence and animosity they faced on their journey.

When the brutal Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block the students from entering the school – a bold act meant to crush the very spirit of the movement – Bates made a comment that was simply arresting. As the eyes of the whole nation and the world looked on, Bates left President Eisenhower with no choice but to act.

“If the President doesn’t act, I’m going to take them to Washington and leave them on the doorstep of the White House and say “These are your children, what are you going to do to protect them?””

Bates, voiced by Angela Bassett, is compelling.

Sharon La Cruise’s insertion of herself does not always fit, but where it does fit, it succeeds in guiding the viewer along the documentarian’s journey of discovering Daisy Bates.

Tributes and Reflections

U.S. Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater paid high tribute to the film. After sharing about her admirable past as a sit-in protester Mrs. Bridgewater shared that she too learnt much about Bates from the film.

“I grew up in a household…that took social activism seriously,” Ambassador Bridgewater stated.

“I was a sit-in-er. I picketed for equality, for access to lunch counters in my home town of Fredericksburg Virginia I knew about Daisy Bates, I heard about Daisy Bates. I heard her name along with many other names but I didn’t know the depth of Daisy Bates really because I was a teenager and I did not know as much about her as I learned from this wonderful film.”

 U.S. Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater  greets University of the West Indies lecturer, Jermaine McCalpin at the screening of Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock, at the United States Embassy, Kingston.
U.S. Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater greets University of the West Indies lecturer, Dr. Jermaine McCalpin at the screening of Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock, at the United States Embassy, Kingston.

A notable comment by University of the West Indies lecturer, Dr. Jermaine McCalpin, who spoke on a panel at the end of the film, was that “History often deletes many of the important participants in the story.”

How true. How sad. Even to this day.

The more we delete, the more we lose. Inspired by this film, I hope to take another look at my history; perhaps there are more diamonds still waiting to be (re)discovered in the rough.

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18 thoughts on “Discovering Mrs. Daisy Bates”

  1. Interesting read. Food for thought; where are the Daisy Bates of our day? How many of our students, teachers and other professionals are content to sit by and observe?

    1. That’s a real question. Didn’t get to address it, but we should really be asking ourselves what is stopping us in 2013 from making the type of earth-shattering power moves Daisy Bates and others made over a half-century ago. We have far more resources, far more technology, far more awareness of the global need – thanks to the media.

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