I’m going to do something a little bit different today. My usual Wednesday ‘good people’ posts feature people who are doing good things for others, or for the planet, in recent days or weeks. Today, though, I’m going to highlight a single good person who has been dead for 22 years now, but who, in her day, would certainly have made my ‘good people’ list.
February is Black History Month in the U.S., and while I typically would have done a few pieces by now on people from the past who have made positive contributions to our world, I’ve been so wrapped up in impeachment and other political issues that I’ve been remiss. So today, I am combining Black History with Good People!
Her name was Daisy Bates, born in 1914. When Daisy was three years old, her mother was raped and murdered by three local white men, and her body thrown into a millpond. Soon after, her father abandoned her and she was left to be cared for by her mother’s close friends. Her mother’s murderers, though known to law enforcement, were never prosecuted, and thus began Daisy’s rage toward white people. That rage might have consumed Daisy, but on his deathbed, her adoptive father had some wise words that helped then-teenager Daisy turn her rage into activism …
“Hate can destroy you, Daisy. Don’t hate white people just because they’re white. If you hate, make it count for something. Hate the humiliations we are living under in the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the soul of every black man and woman. Hate the insults hurled at us by white scum—and then try to do something about it, or your hate won’t spell a thing.”
Daisy Bates took his words to heart and would spend the rest of her life ‘doing something about it’.
In 1942, Daisy married L.C. Bates and the couple moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where they started the Arkansas State Press, a weekly statewide newspaper. The paper became an avid voice for civil rights even before a nationally recognized movement had emerged. Daisy became president of the Arkansas State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), as well as continuing her work on the newspaper.
A year after it started, the State Press published a story covering the killing of a Black man by a white police officer. This local case gave details about how a Black soldier on leave from Camp Robinson, Sergeant Thomas P. Foster, was shot by a local white police officer. Sound familiar? Some things never change.
Although Black Americans praised this groundbreaking newspaper, many white readers were outraged by it and some even boycotted it. In August of 1957, a stone was thrown into their home that read, “Stone this time. Dynamite next.” More than once, members of the Ku Klux Klan demanded that the Bates “go back to Africa” and burned crosses in their yard. But none of that stopped Daisy Bates.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v Board of Education that segregated schools were illegal, however the State of Arkansas refused to acknowledge the ruling and Black students continued to be kept out of schools. Daisy and L.C. used their newspaper to find a reasonable solution to the situation, editorializing …
“We feel that the proper approach would be for the leaders among the Negro race—not clabber mouths, Uncle Toms, or grinning appeasers to get together and counsel with the school heads.”
And later, when Governor Orval Faubus and his supporters were refusing even token desegregation of Central High School …
“It is the belief of this paper that since the Negro’s loyalty to America has forced him to shed blood on foreign battle fields against enemies, to safeguard constitutional rights, he is in no mood to sacrifice these rights for peace and harmony at home.”
In 1957, Governor Faubus, still refusing to allow Black children to attend all-white schools, brought in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent a group of nine Black students, later to become famous as the Little Rock Nine, from entering Little Rock High School. In response to this defiance as well as to protests already taking place, President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to allow their entrance. On September 25, 1957, the nine students were escorted by Army soldiers and Daisy Bates into Central High amid angry protests. The next month, Bates and others were arrested on trumped up charges, but were soon after released on bail.
Bates regularly drove the students to and from school, hosted them in her home after school and worked tirelessly to ensure they were protected from violent crowds. One of her most successful protection strategies was to get local ministers to escort the students to school, daring the white Christians protesting and hurling threats to attack men of the cloth. Bates’ plan worked, but she started to receive threats herself. Rocks were thrown into her home, crosses were burned on her property, and bullet shells were sent to her in the mail. White advertisers boycotted her newspaper and eventually she and L.C. had to shut it down.
Bates received support from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who assured her, “World opinion is with you. The moral conscience of millions of white Americans is with you.” Bates was also elected to the executive committee of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Bates was also the only woman who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington during the official program, pledging that women would fight just as hard and long as the men until all Black people were free and had the vote.
Bates later served in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson and worked on anti-poverty programs. In 1968 she moved to the rural black community of Mitchellville, Arkansas and worked there to improve the lives of her neighbors by establishing a self-help program which was responsible for new sewer systems, paved streets, a water system, and community center.
The city of Little Rock eventually honored Bates by opening Daisy Bates Elementary School and by making the third Monday in February George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day an official state holiday.
Daisy Bates died at the age of 84 on November 4, 1999 in Little Rock, Arkansas, after suffering numerous strokes. Her body was chosen to lie in state in the Arkansas State Capitol building, on the second floor, making her the first woman and the first Black person to do so. Governor Orval Faubus, who had opposed integration during the Little Rock Crisis and throughout his political career, had an office on this floor. Her house became a National Historic Landmark in 2002 and in April 2019, the Arkansas governor signed into law a bill that designates Daisy Bates and Johnny Cash as the two representatives of the State of Arkansas in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection.
This woman didn’t just do a single good thing, or a few good things, but she dedicated her life to doing good things. If Daisy Bates wasn’t a ‘good people’, then I don’t know who is.