Daisy Lee Gatson Bates is a study in transformation. She created that transformation with grit, hard work, and a passion that burned so hot one could see the flame in her eyes. Her role in the 1957 Central High Integration Crisis may have been the catalyst of that transformation, introducing her to the world, but more importantly testing her courage, and passion, and resolve for change.
But, August 28, 1963 was the culmination of Daisy’s transformation. While she had been a part of the civil rights struggle, hosting Dr. King in her home at the height of the 1957 Crisis; befriending the likes of Thurgood Marshall, Whitney Young, and Eleanor Roosevelt ... she was yet just a woman within the struggle. She had not always been allowed at the table. Her tiny, but unmistakable voice had not always been listened to, or taken seriously. Her demands for women involvement had been heard, but not acted on.
But, on August 28, 1963, her transformation was in full bloom. This day that was a culmination of hard labor, and years of planning by the great minds within America’s civil rights struggle. Great men and women; black and white, northerners and southerners had all given of their time, poured out their hearts, allowed the sweat to gather on their brows … pushing themselves beyond their own expectations, in the name of change … and, history. Yet, if history were fair, if all things were equal – even within this great movement; we would know the names of all the leaders who labored for that day. America would recognize each architect of that memorable event, ensuring that August 28 would be a day to remember – including the oft-forgotten women of the march, and the movement.
Daisy’s 142 words on that hot August day were part of more than her personal transformation, but part of America’s transformation. A life-changing day in American history, and the Civil Rights Movement as Arkansas’ Daisy Bates helped usher in the changes that made America a better America. The same Daisy Bates who challenged Governor Orval Faubus’ hate-filled stance against school integration, and applauded Arkansas’ own President Clinton as he escorted the nine black women and men - the same children barred from that school 30 years earlier – into Central High School.
Daisy Bates, Rosa Parks, Myrlie Evers, Diane Nash, all great Americans who happened to be women, and who worked tirelessly to realize the dreams and hopes espoused on the stage that day. Just a handful of the women of the March who stood proudly besides Dr. King, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and a young John Lewis on that day. If all things were fair in history, we would need no reminder that there was once a girl from Huttig who transformed herself into a brave and beautiful leader, who embraced presidents, and stood beside leaders, and most importantly, before the hundreds of thousands of Americans, speaking from her heart about justice and equality. Daisy Lee Gatson Bates, of Huttig, Arkansas understood the struggle like few men, and fewer women. She and her husband L.C. Bates had lived the struggle – day in and day out – as they stood up for justice, for equal education for the nine black children who dared integrate the enviable Little Rock Central High School. This orphan and child of the segregated south had turned her hate and bitterness of racism and prejudice into love and hope; had sacrificed her safety, her name, her business, her livelihood for what was right. A woman such as Daisy should never be forgotten, and never be relegated to asking for a place in history.
This beautiful avenger’s sole purpose on earth was to move the world from wrong to right, from unjust to just, from unequal to equal. She was the voice and the face of the 1957 Central High Integration Crisis; making her the most hated woman in America – and, one of the most courageous. Her speech - the only speech by a woman at the 1963 March on Washington – helped transform America, and this mill town orphan who dared lead for change. Daisy Lee Gatson Bates, a tiny woman in her size five shoes and wrists so small no watch would fit…a woman worth knowing, and remembering.
The Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, is commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom with a special exhibition, “And Freedom for All: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." Watch a video of President Clinton sharing his reflections on Daisy Bates and the Arkansas Connection to the March on Washington, which will be featured in the exhibit:
Photo: The Little Rock Nine and Daisy Bates visit the NAACP national headquarters, in New York City. On September 25, 1957, the Little Rock Nine – a group of nine young students – tested the U.S. Supreme Court Decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka by attending Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Standing (left to right): Ernest Green, Melba Pattillo, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Daisy Bates and Jefferson Thomas. Seated (left to right): Thelma Mothershed, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, and Gloria Ray.