I recently had the opportunity to watch a screening of Daisy Bates: The First Lady of Little Rock at a Houston PBS event.
To say that her story inspired me would be an understatement. I was left in awe of her resilience. She was so poised, strong and brave.
Imagine being 8-years-old and finding out from a playmate that your real mother was raped and killed by racist thugs. What if you walked into a store and just because of the color of your skin, the owner tells you to wait “nig—” until I serve these white people and then gives you a piece of meat that’s not even fit for the hogs to eat?
How does one cope with that kind of hatred? For Bates, it was the love of her dear parents. They sheltered her from much of the cruelty in the segregated South, but they could only do so much. Soon Bates learned to tangle with the wicked reality of inequality.
Her story empowered me. Bates’ childhood made her story all the more complex.
She not only had to fight through the issues of racism and sexism, but she had to deal with the internal conflict of being adopted and the truth about her mother’s rape and murder; truths that were revealed to her through the taunting of school children in her community. She made no excuses for herself and empowered me to take my own challenges and use them to propel myself into something greater, to never be too concerned with where I am because I have the power to overcome the misfortunes in my past.
Instead of becoming bitter, racism humbled Bates, made her determined and a fighter, which made me respect her even more. The maturity and selflessness displayed by Bates was something I had not seen before.
She was a fierce debater and even though she only completed eighth grade, Bates was known for her determination and eloquence. She used the tragedies of her past to become an advocate for the disenfranchised individuals in her community.
Bates started her crusade for change during her teenage years when she met and married a journalist named Lucious Christopher Bates in the early 1940s. Together they started a weekly African-American newspaper, the Arkansas State Press.
The newspaper allowed her to make the fight for equality front and center in Arkansas. She soon became the president of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1952.
At the time of her presidency the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.
However, Arkansas schools still weren’t admitting African-American students in white institutions. Bates and her husband used their newspaper to bring the issue to light.
As schools in the North began to admit black students, the schools in the South did not. Many were afraid that if Arkansas started integrating its schools, it would act as a domino effect and desegregate schools in the South.
In 1957, Bates had enough. She helped fight to get a group of young African-American students, known as the Little Rock Nine, into Little Rock Central High School. She served as an advocate for the students. Her home was a safe haven for the students to organize their plan to achieve equality.
Her story humbled me.
Being a student at a historically black university in the deep South, I have never had to deal with the mental and physical anguish of being denied an education simply because of the color of my skin. If anything, I have been pushed to work harder.
Watching the hatred and brutality Bates and the Little Rock Nine endured made me so much more appreciative of the civil liberties that I enjoy today.
I especially admired the courage of Little Rock Nine’s Elizabeth Eckford. Eckford, unaware of a schedule change, showed up at Little Rock High School to be greeted by an angry mob that shoved and hurled obscenities at her. She stood her ground. It took courage for her to do that.
As I watched Daisy Bates’ story unfold, it angered me. Why hadn’t anyone talked about her? I vaguely remember hearing about the Little Rock Nine in grade school and I certainly did not hear about Daisy Bates at all. Bates singlehandedly took on racial segregation in Arkansas. In my eyes, she was braver than most of the men in Arkansas.
Mrs. Bates has definitely been short changed.
We live in a patriarchal society that has condensed the history of an entire ethnic group into one month and unjustly we are seeing that the women, who were on the front lines demanding justice, don’t get the glory.
It moved me. It forced me to question my belief system. Would I be strong enough to stand up by myself for what’s right like Bates? Would I be able to put my life on the line for the next generation of African-Americans?
I hope that we continue to give attention to those who are lesser known. I am happy that an underreported civil rights heroine, such as Daisy Bates is getting some attention.
She showed me that one woman with a vision can make a difference. It is a lesson that needs to be heard by many others and I am happy to see that there is now an opportunity for others to hear it.