On April 13, the Levy Lecture Series audience was entertained by professional storyteller and historical interpreter Sheila Arnold who presented a virtual “conversation” with the social activist Daisy Bates, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Arkansas in the 1950s. The premise of the event was a book tour in 1963 by Ms. Bates to promote her memoir, “The Long Shadow of Little Rock.”
The book tells the story of Ms. Bates’ life and how she organized and prepared Black parents and students to integrate the public schools in Little Rock during the 1957-1958 academic year. Recounting a lifetime filled with trailblazing events, friendships, and working relationships with famous politicians and adventures far beyond what she had ever imagined, her life’s work was defined by two experiences. The first was a tragedy in her childhood and how it is connected to advice her father gave to her on his deathbed. The second was her work with the Little Rock Nine. Through her talk, she showed how the impact of the first event fueled her work with the second.
When Daisy was about 9 years old, a disgruntled playmate’s taunt about her “real parents” upended her world. A few weeks later she asked a trusted older cousin about it and learned the truth: The man and woman she grew up loving and calling daddy and mama were not her birth parents. The names of her birth parents were Hezakiah Gatson and Millie Riley. Hezakiah had worked nights at the local lumber mill. One night, three white men came to the door and told Millie that Hezakiah had been seriously injured at work and they were there to take her to the hospital to be with him. Millie left the infant Daisy with their next-door neighbors, Orlee and Susie Smith. Later that morning, her uninjured father arrived home to an empty house. Millie was missing.
Nearly a week later, Daisy’s mother’s body came to the surface of a local pond. She had been badly beaten and raped before being killed. To add insult to injury, the local sheriff was uninterested in trying to identify or capture the men who were last seen with Millie Riley. Hezakiah Gatson thought he would lose his mind from anger and left town shortly thereafter, abandoning his daughter, whom he never saw again.
Ms. Bates said of that time, “That was the moment that I hated white people. I hated white people. I hated them for what they had done to me, for what they had done to my mama and my daddy. I hated them … and from that moment on, I refused to speak to any white people.” The hate she felt festered inside her.
Right before Daisy finished high school, her father was diagnosed with cancer. He was able to be treated in the local Catholic hospital, instead of being forced to go to the colored hospital located further away. Daisy visited her father in the hospital often. The nurses, many of whom were both nuns and white, were very kind to her father, but Daisy never said hello or acknowledged them in any way. Daisy still refused to speak to white people.
On the last day of his life, his father spoke to her lovingly, but sternly. He had heartfelt advice for her, and he hoped she would be receptive to hear it. It would be the only inheritance he would leave her. He said, “Daisy, you are so filled with hatred. Don’t hate white people. Don’t hate white people just because they’re white. Hate the humiliations that they pour on people. Hate the discrimination that they give to people. Hate the insults that are hurled by people. Hate that. And then do something about it. Because hatred can destroy you.”
Daisy realized her father was right. She vowed to devote her life to service, to try and eliminate hate, and to improve opportunities available for Black people. As an adult, she did this through her work with the NAACP, whose mission aligned with her goals.
The Little Rock Nine
The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education Topeka outlawed segregation in public schools, yet schools were not complying. After two years of false starts, a lawsuit was filed against the Little Rock School District in 1956. The courts ordered the school board to integrate the schools by September 1957.
As the local leader of the NAACP, Ms. Bates was “the face” of the desegregation effort in Little Rock. She was often threatened, but she continued her work because wanted the Black students in Little Rock to have the same educational opportunities as the white students.
The differences between the Black high school and the white high school were stark. Dunbar, the Black public high school, was run down. It had 34 classrooms and a library with 5,000 books. The school lacked a gymnasium, science labs, and practice fields. Every text book was a hand-me-down. In contrast, Central, the white public high school, had 100 classrooms, a gymnasium, athletic fields, new text books every year, and a library with 11,000 books. The schools were not “separate but equal,” only separate.
Starting in the spring of 1957, the NAACP was seeking students with excellent grade point averages who were highly motivated and willing to be part of the desegregation effort. Hundreds applied. Then word got out about who had applied. The students’ parents were threatened with losing their jobs and being evicted from their homes. They had crosses burned on their front lawns. The intimidation campaign worked. Except for the nine, every other candidate withdrew their application.
Ms. Bates recounted how she worked with the students all through the summer, preparing them for the verbal insults they would hear and teaching them about non-violent protest. That September, Governor Orval Faubus had called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent any Black students from entering Central. Ms. Bates and the NAACP went back to court. Ultimately President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to make sure the court order was enforced.
Central High School was integrated, but once inside the school, the nine students were completely on their own. They were ignored, humiliated, harassed, taunted, and provoked by fellow students and teachers alike. One student, Minnijean Brown, was expelled mid-year for finally responding to the harassment, but the NAACP sent her to New York where she continued with her education. Ernest Green, the only senior in the group, graduated in June 1958. The next academic year, every single public school in Little Rock was shut down in an attempt to stop desegregation. Arkansans refer to it as “The Lost Year.”
The video of Ms. Sheila Arnold discussing her own life, as well as the life of Ms. Bates, is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.