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Daisy Bates

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 2/15/2019

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

Millie Riley lived a short, brutal life. Only months after giving birth to her daughter in 1914, she was raped, murdered, and her body disposed of in a millpond by three white men. At eight years old, her daughter Daisy Lee Gatson learned what had happened to her mother. She also learned that the men had faced no punishment. At eight years old, she learned that local law enforcement didn’t consider her mother’s murder worth investigating.

“My life now had a secret goal,” Daisy said years later, “to find the men who had done this horrible thing to my mother.” Anger and a desire for vengeance took hold of Daisy at a young age. As an adult, that fire for vengeance would grow into one for justice and she would become a driving force in the integration of schools in the South. But as a young woman, Daisy was full of hate.

Following the death of her mother, Daisy’s father passed her along to the care of family friends Orlee, a World War I veteran, and Susie Smith. She would never be reunited with her biological father. Young Daisy attended segregated schools and experienced first-hand the poor conditions that were deemed adequate for black students. Orlee Smith died when Daisy was a teenager, which came as a terrible loss. By her own account, she adored the man and couldn’t recall “a time when this man I called my father didn't talk to me almost as if I were an adult.” Her relationship with Susie Smith was far more fraught and often violent; she “often clobbered, tamed, switched, and made [me] stand in the corner,” Daisy wrote. But it was Orlee’s words and not Susie’s actions that would alter Daisy’s path. 

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Consumed by the injustice of her mother’s murder, Daisy sought out the culprits. She caught a man’s eye one day in a commissary and the guilt in his gaze made her certain he’d been involved in Millie’s demise. She became a regular sight at his hang-out, a steady reminder of his crime as the man lived a life of drunkenness. He would once plead to Daisy, “In the name of God, please leave me alone.” He later drank himself to death.

“You're filled with hatred. Hate can destroy you, Daisy,” Orlee said to her as he lay on his deathbed. “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 became the president of the Arkansas Conference of the NAACP in 1952. With her husband L.C. Bates by her side, she poured her energy into the Arkansas State Press, a newspaper that shined a light on the achievements of the black community in the area, as well as the injustices they faced. She was at the fore-front of the battle for school desegregation when the eyes of the nation turned to Little Rock and the Arkansas governor’s refusal to comply with the federal law established by Brown v. Board of Education. Every step of the way, Daisy experienced resistance, violence, insults, and protests from the white community. The Ku Klux Klan burnt crosses on her lawn at dusk.

It was Daisy who lead the Little Rock Nine, the nine students selected to attend and integrate Central High School, through the hateful, screaming crowds. One of the students, Elizabeth Eckford, recalled the day. “I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd,” she said, “someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.” Daisy was the point of the spear on this battleground of the Civil Rights Movement.

During this time, Martin Luther King, Jr. sent word to Daisy, urging her to maintain “a way of non-violence,” even as she and the nine students were “terrorized, stoned, and threatened by ruthless mobs.” He insisted, “World opinion is with you. The moral conscience of millions of white Americans is with you.”

The governor of Arkansas attempted to delay the date of integration, citing the danger of an increase of violence. He neglected to mention, of course, that the violence was almost entirely initiated by whites who launched on a campaign of terror against the black community with Daisy Bates at the center. Her home was a haven for the Little Rock Nine.

Her home would later be declared a Historic National Landmark. Of its significance, a National Parks publication says, “The perseverance of Mrs. Bates and the Little Rock Nine during these turbulent years sent a strong message throughout the South that desegregation worked and the tradition of racial segregation under ‘Jim Crow’ would no longer be tolerated in the United States of America.”

Though her actions in Little Rock would be her most known, Daisy Bates never stopped working for justice. She later relocated to Washington, D.C. to work with the Democratic National Committee. She headed anti-poverty programs while serving in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. When her health demanded, she returned to Little Rock, then moved to the rural black community of Mitchellville where she worked tirelessly for her neighbors, establishing a program that brought water systems, sewer lines, paved roads, and a community center to the area. 

In 1987, Little Rock opened the Daisy Bates Elementary School, paying tribute to a woman who, in her own elementary years, had been a child in pain and burning with hate. Daisy Lee Gatson Bates died in 1999, a formidable, iron-willed woman who channeled her rage into meaningful change for all the children who followed her.