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Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine

Just over 50 years ago, a rock shattered the picture window of a light-brick house in Little Rock, Ark.

A note was tied to it that read: "Stone this time. Dynamite next."

The house belonged to Daisy and L.C. Bates.

The couple led efforts to end segregation in Arkansas — on buses, in libraries and in the public schools.

On Monday, the nation will mark 50 years since black students integrated Central High School in Little Rock.

"Mrs. Bates was the person for the moment," says Annie Abrams, a friend of Daisy Bates who was one of many black residents active at the time of the crisis.

"Daisy Bates was the poster child of black resistance. She was a quarterback, the coach. We were the players," says Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, the group of students who integrated Central High School.

"She was conditioned to know that the civil rights movement was moving forward," Sybil Jordan Hampton, one of the first African American students to graduate from Central High, says.

Daisy Bates helped drive the movement in Little Rock.

Challenging Authority

Bates and her husband, L.C., were a team: She was the president of the Arkansas NAACP; he was its regional director. He was the publisher of the largest black newspaper in the state; she was his star reporter.

"The reason they were larger than life ... Daisy and L.C. were always challenging whatever the prevailing attitude of white authority, of segregation, of restrictions of Jim Crow," Green says

The story began in 1954 when the Supreme Court called for an end to segregated schools.

Daisy Bates and the NAACP took the Little Rock school board to court.

At the time, Green was attending Dunbar High School, the all-black in Little Rock.

"Daisy was in the papers indicating that she was going to challenge the Little Rock School Board to adhere to the '54 decision. So the reason that they put together this plan was because Daisy forced them to put the plan together."

Recruiting Students to Go First

The plan could work only if there were students — children really — willing to be the first to possibly face violence and defy the segregationists.

Daisy Bates helped recruit them, bright kids the school board couldn't turn down.

"I've known Ms. Bates since I was probably two years old and I was a paper carrier for their newspaper from the time I was six," says Hampton. She was one of the children considered, though she wasn't selected as one of the original nine.

"I remember that she talked to my parents at an NAACP meeting," Hampton says. "And she told my parents that she felt that my brother and I both would be good candidates. And she said to my parents that she hoped that she would have their support in our stepping forward."

Daisy Bates did win some parents over — even as the school board was pressuring them to keep their children at the all-black high school.

Star Quality

"You really needed a woman to go and talk with families and to give the assurance that the students were going to have a touch point of comfort," Hampton says. "But she also was a very beautiful woman and the national press and other people found it just wonderful to have this star-quality black woman."

Bates wore high heels and stylish dresses, and her friend Annie Abrams recalls her as one of the most glamorous, sophisticated black women in town.

Bates had no children of her own, but she was "hungry for children and children were attracted to her because she was a Lena Horne in our town."

It was unusual, in an era when black leaders were almost always men, for a black woman to take a leading role — especially in a drama that was playing out on the national stage.

'Blood Will Run in the Streets'

The showdown came in the fall of 1957.

Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus vowed "blood will run in the streets" if black students tried to enter Central High.

On the first day of school, Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to turn the students away.

Some two weeks passed and the nation waited to see what President Eisenhower would do.

Sending in the Troops

Minniejean Brown Trickey and Ernest Greene, two of the Little Rock Nine, remember the scene inside Daisy Bates' house.

"The house was buzzing with media and people in and out," Trickey says. "Things were happening. I mean, [civil rights lawyer] Thurgood Marshall was his amazing self. He explained things to us at a certain point and there were quite a few great minds there who were passing on information and laughing, talking."

Green adds, "What I remember at Ms. Bates' house is that you had all of this drama going on, but we were still teenagers. We were worried about how we were going to look getting into the jeep. Why couldn't we have two jeeps, instead of one. And Daisy said: 'Look, this is a very important moment. The fact that the president of the United States has sent the United States Army here to escort you into school means that this government is finally serious about school desegregation.'"

Eisenhower had acted, sending in the 101st Airborne to escort five boys and four girls to high school.

The next days and weeks, Daisy Bates' house was still headquarters for the Little Rock Nine.

By week's end, Central High had been integrated.

Green — the only senior in the group — graduated the following spring.

Martin Luther King Jr. attended the graduation ceremony. Daisy Bates could not. Her face and name were better-known in the city than King's, and her presence might have stirred violence.

A Complicated Legacy

Fifty years later, her legacy is complicated.

Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, says that Bates, who wrote a book in 1962, took too much credit for her role in the drama.

"Actually I think she has in her writing expanded what her role was with us," Trickey says. "And part of that is unfortunate because she emerged as the spokesperson for the Little Rock Nine. And our parents, by and large, were silenced.

"I'll tell you one thing: it was my dad who lost his job," Trickey says. "It was my mother who got the terror calls. It was my mother who was frightened for my life, and they were the heroes of this."

Central High graduate Sybil Jordan Hampton thinks Daisy Bates was also heroic.

"Mrs. Bates was an extraordinarily complex woman," Jordan says. "An incident thrust her into the forefront of a movement. And I always have felt that Mrs. Bates was a tragic figure."

Fifty years on, the woman who had been at the center of the Little Rock movement is barely remembered. Her home, where it all happened, was nearly lost after her husband passed away and money was tight.

Daisy Bates died in 1999. She became the first — and still only — African-American to lie in state in the Arkansas Capitol, the same building once occupied by Gov. Faubus.

On that same day, the Little Rock Nine were honored at the White House by Bill Clinton, the president from Arkansas.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.
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