They called her Mrs Daisy Bates


Sunday, September 01, 2013

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LITTLE publicised fact: At the culmination of the 1963 March on Washington, included in the line-up of speakers alongside the "Big Six" civil rights leaders (Martin Luther King, Jr; John Lewis; A Philip Randolph; Roy Wilkins; Whitney Young, Jr; and a representative for James Farmer) was a tribute to the "Negro Women Fighters for Freedom".

Mrs Daisy Bates, was one of the "Big Six" women (Myrlie Evers, Dane Bevel, Prince Lee, Rosa Parks, and Gloria Richardson) to whom tribute was paid, and was one of only three who actually spoke to the 250,000 people gathered on the Mall that August afternoon. Perhaps it was from her brief few lines at the March that we've heard her words: "No man or woman who tries to pursue an ideal in his or her own way is without enemies."

And considering what little there is written about Mrs Bates — that she was beautiful, glamorous, and articulate, equal space is given to characterisations of her being unconventional, egotistical, and a publicity hound — it is clear that she, too, had her enemies.

For those magnificent women of America's Civil Rights Movement were often kept in the background, not invited to the table, even though they were extraordinary organisers, spiritual leaders and activists in their own right who suffered the threatening verbal and physical abuse as did their male counterparts. After the March, none of the 'Negro Women Fighters for Freedom' were part of the delegation invited to meet with President John F Kennedy and members of his Administration, to further the enactment of civil rights legislation: an ironic snub, considering the women's valiant efforts to ensure that equal rights legislation was in fact enforced.

The simple story of Mrs Daisy Bates is that she was a civil rights activist and writer who, with her husband LC Bates, publisher of the Arkansas State Press, used their newspaper as a voice for civil rights and to publicise violations of desegregation rulings.

Oliver Brown vs Board of Education was the landmark 1954 United States Supreme Court case brought against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, by 13 African-American Topeka parents who wanted their children to attend "white" schools in their neighbourhoods. The Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional, but there was little faith that the Brown vs Board ruling would be enforced.

"Now that the Courts have spoken, what will we do?" asked Daisy Bates.

With that, in 1957, she set about ensuring that the local school board in Little Rock was compliant, and enrolled the Little Rock Nine — those six brilliant girls and three boys who walked through crowds of jeering, spitting, hostile segregationists to enter Little Rock Central High School. The photographs of these children and the 10,000-member Arkansas National Guard who finally saw to their safe passage into the school have become iconic images of the desegregation movement, but little is remembered about Daisy Bates.

She later slid into near obscurity, but for one brief moment in 1990 when governor and future President Bill Clinton honoured her as the most distinguished Arkansas citizen of all time. By then she had suffered several strokes, the loss of her husband, her newspaper business, the banning of her autobiography The Long Shadow of Little Rock, and was nearly destitute. But pictures of her gentle smile at that event belie those facts and the tremendous difficulties and sacrifices that she made so that others could be invited to the table.

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the United States ambassador to Jamaica Pamela Bridgewater presented Sharon LaCruise's documentary film: Daisy Bates - First Lady of Little Rock. The film had been brought to her attention by local film festival organiser Barbara Blake Hanna, and was shown at the Embassy last week.

And there in the Grand Atrium of the Embassy, is a large tableau of nine images of Americana with a photo of Ambassador Bridgewater standing next to a beaming president of the United States, Barack Obama, whose smile is wide and joyful. Ambassador Bridgewater's smile is somewhat more enigmatic and reflective. Yes, there is a twinkle in her eye, but there's something about that smile...

It is the smile of hundreds and thousands of women who got us there, and who remain our unsung heroes. Those women who make substantive yet unrecognised contributions, whose bravery goes unacknowledged, who make sacrifices without reward and who, when they step from the glare of the public eye, often disappear with little notation in history. It is the knowing smile that the sacrifice that comes from pursuing an ideal is its own reward so that others can come to the table.

And at the end, the ambassador simply said: "Each of us can, each of must, and each of us should make a difference."

I think Mrs Bridgewater was clearly talking to the women in the room, and to the Daisy Bates in each and every one of us.

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