Long before Daisy Bates earned her niche in history as the community leader who helped integrate Little Rock, Ark.'s Central High School in 1957, she had another career as a newspaper editor. And, in this role, she was also no stranger to crusades.
In the early 1940s, for example, black tavern owners in Little Rock were routinely harassed by the police. "The white policemen would come in and shake them down, ask them for a payoff. Then they would line up the men in the bar and club them," recalls Bates, her thin arms angrily swiping the air. "I went down and interviewed the men, blood over their faces, their heads wrapped in bandages, and then told the district attorney. He said he didn't believe it. I said, 'What will it take to convince you?' And the next time the shakedown occurred, I just loaded the men into a a few cars and brought them to his office."
Yesterday, the National Newspaper Publishers Association honored Daisy Bates for the way that she and her late husband, Lucius C. Bates, used their newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, to fight segregation and racism. With Vice President George Bush and Mayor Marion Barry listening, William O. Walker, the chairman of the association, said, "Beyond editorials, she decided she had to contribute, to risk her life."
The talk of courage makes Daisy Bates shift uneasily in her chair. But when asked why she wasn't afraid like some other Little Rock leaders were, she sits straight up. "Who said I wasn't afraid," she says, her speech slowed by a recent stroke. "You acted in spite of your fear. You acted because you believed, you were committed."
She wanted to make a difference, right from her childhood in Huttig, Ark. Her mother had been raped and murdered by a white man, whom Bates grew up knowing, but that didn't sour her quest for peaceful justice. When she was a teen-ager she met her future husband, then a worldly, fiery insurance man who wanted to start a paper. "He came to my foster father's house, selling insurance. And he was driving a big Packard. I was more interested in the pretty car, but then he began to talk about newspapers. He said you could take the paper, fight segregation and make a difference," says Bates.
Though the staff and revenues of the Arkansas State Press were limited, the weekly became one of the best-known black papers in the South and provided coverage that the major white media ignored. "There was the case of Sgt. Foster, who one Sunday afternoon in 1942 was walking down 9th Street in Little Rock. He saw one of his buddies being arrested and put in a military paddy wagon. He went to ask about it and a white city policeman clubbed him and then shot him five times. We pushed the issue of police brutality. And black policemen were hired and assigned to the black neighborhoods," recalls Bates.
But the watershed story, for the newspaper and for Bates, was the enrollment of nine black children at Central High School. Bates, who was president of the state NAACP, had worked with the school board selecting the students. She met them in her house each morning and afternoon, feeding them, praying and talking with them. The armed camp that the Bates ranch-style home was forced to become was also the battle station for the out-of-town journalists, particularly the black reporters, who had few places to eat and sleep in the segregated town. The television coverage of this event exposed the world to the brutality of segregation, but her contribution led to the death of the paper.
Last month the story of Central High School was revived in a television movie based on the book by a white teacher who was there. Bates, who has written her autobiography and co-authored a screenplay on the school's integration, chooses gentility over bitterness on the subject. "The wrong color," she says quickly when asked about the lack of interest in her material. A character based on her appeared in the film. "I wouldn't sign a release for my name because they wouldn't let me see the manuscript. How did I know what they were saying about me?" The teacher, she says, "wanted to come through as the great white lady from the South, who helped the colored children. Now the vice-principal really did more to help the kids than anyone else. And he was portrayed like an office boy."
But she doesn't want to be called "a woman before her time," a phrase all her admirers uses. She frowns, shakes her black curls vigorously, and says, "Most women who are worth something ought to do something."