Daisy Gatson Bates
Mentor of Little Rock 9 | Class of 1993
Daisy Gatson Bates was a mentor to the Little Rock Nine, the African-American students who courageously integrated Central High School in Little Rock in 1957 amid national and international recognition when then-Governor Orval Faubus ordered members of the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the entry of black students. She and her husband, Lucious Christopher (L. C.) Bates, instituted the Arkansas State Press, a weekly newspaper dealing primarily with civil rights and other issues in the black community.
Daisy Lee Gatson’s birth parents remain a mystery. Before age seven, she was taken in as a foster child by Susie Smith and Orlee Smith, a mill worker, in Huttig, Arkansas, just three miles from the Louisiana border. Gatson attended the segregated schools in Huttig, but the extent of her formal education is unknown. It is unlikely her education went beyond the ninth grade and may have been less than that.
At age fifteen, she met her future husband, L. C. Bates, then a traveling salesman living in Memphis, Tennessee, where she had moved in 1932 after the death of her foster father. Little is known about her until she and her future husband moved to Little Rock in 1941 and started the Arkansas State Press. Gatson and Bates were married on March 4, 1942, in Fordyce, Arkansas. Although she rarely wrote for the paper, Bates gradually became active in its operations and was named by her husband as city editor in 1945.
As ardent supporters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), both Bates and her husband were active in the Little Rock branch. In 1952, she was elected president of the Arkansas Conference of Branches, the umbrella organization for the state NAACP. She and L. C. worked closely with other members of the Little Rock branch as the national strategy of the NAACP shifted in the 1950s from advocating a position of equal funding for segregated programs to outright racial integration.
Although well known in the black community, Bates came to the attention of white Arkansans as a civil rights advocate in 1956 during the pre-trial proceedings of the federal court case Aaron v. Cooper, which set the stage for the 1957 desegregation of Central High. Bates once engaged in a fiery exchange with an attorney for the Little Rock School Board when he called her by her first name. She quickly let him know he was out of line in doing so and demanded that he refrain from it. This challenge to one of white supremacy’s oldest traditions—that of controlling and intimidating African Americans by treating them as though they were children—became part of the front-page story in the next morning’s Arkansas Gazette.
The federal courts at the time allowed the Little Rock School District to set its own pace for desegregation of its public schools, but they could not prevent Bates’ involvement with the first nine students who attended Central High School during the school year 1957–58. Although local NAACP attorney Wiley Branton of Pine Bluff had handled much of the litigation, Bates, in her capacity as president of the Arkansas Conference of Branches, was recognized as the principal spokesperson and leader for the forces behind school desegregation. In this role, she was in constant contact with NAACP leaders and in constant conflict with segregationists using intimidation in Arkansas. For much of the school year, she was in daily contact with the national office of the NAACP in New York as segregationists battled to destroy the NAACP in Arkansas as well as to intimidate her, her husband, and the Little Rock Nine and their families into giving up the struggle. On occasion, individuals attacked the Bates’ home in Little Rock, forcing them to stand guard nightly.
In recognition of her leadership, the national Associated Press chose her in 1957 as the Woman of the Year in Education and as one of the top ten newsmakers in the world. In 1959, as a result of intimidation by news distributors and a boycott by white business owners who withheld advertising, the Bates’ were forced to close the Arkansas State Press.
Bates remained at the center of the desegregation battle on behalf of the NAACP and the civil rights movement in Arkansas until June 1960 when she moved to New York to write a memoir of her desegregation experiences in Little Rock, The Long Shadow of Little Rock. She remained president of the Arkansas Conference of Branches until 1961, when she was succeeded by George Howard, Jr., who later became a federal judge. Chosen to fill a vacancy on the national board of the NAACP in 1957, Bates was re-elected to successive three-year terms through 1970.
Her prominence as one of the few female civil rights leaders of the period was recognized by her selection as the only woman to speak at the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
In 1968, Bates moved to the all-black town of Mitchellville, Arkansas, to become executive director of that community’s Economic Opportunity Agency, a federal anti-poverty program. She remained there until 1974. This began a new phase in her life that was marked by a commitment to demonstrating that poor African Americans could achieve economic self-sufficiency in partnership with government. Bates secured grants and donations for several improvements in the community, including a sewer system and a Head Start program.
Bates revived the Arkansas State Press in 1984, but it was financially unsuccessful. She sold the paper in 1988 to Darryl Lunon and Janis Kearney Lunon.
In ill health the last years of her life, Bates died of a heart attack on November 4, 1999, at Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock. She is buried in Haven of Rest Cemetery in Little Rock.
In May 2000, a crowd of more than 2,000 gathered in Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock to honor her memory. At this event, President Bill Clinton acknowledged her achievements, comparing her to a diamond that gets “chipped away in form and shines more brightly.” In 2001, the Arkansas legislature enacted a provision that recognizes the third Monday in February as “Daisy Gatson Bates Day.” Thus, her memory, along with those of American presidents, is celebrated on that date as an official state holiday. There are streets in various towns in Arkansas, including Little Rock, which bear her name. In February 2012, PBS broadcast the documentary Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock.