DAISY BATES: FIRST LADY OF LITTLE ROCK (TV)

Summary

A documentary film about civil rights leader Daisy Bates and her efforts to desegregate the school system of Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1950’s.

In 1957, the city of Little Rock, Arkansas becomes the site of one of the bloodiest struggles for school integration in the country at a time when the Civil Rights Movement is still in its infancy. It is during this time that Bates, an “unconventional” civil rights proponent, works to lead this integration effort. The filmmaker, Sharon La Cruise, becomes interested in Bates’ life history and arranges an interview with her, although by that time she is in her mid-80’s and has suffered from several strokes; she passes away two years later. La Cruise attempts to find out more about her on her own. Bates was born in 1914 in the small town of Huttig, Arkansas, a deeply racially segregated community. Bates’ autobiography describes her first recollections of racism in her community in the form of an incident between her and a white butcher who insults her. At the age of eight, Bates discovers that the woman she thought was her mother was actually her father’s second wife; her biological mother had been the victim of a brutal gang-rape and murder years ago. The murder is not investigated and the white men responsible go on with their lives as usual. The anguish from her mother’s death deeply affects Bates, who grows into adolescence harboring great unresolved anger. At the age of 15 she meets traveling salesman Lucius Christopher “L.C.” Bates, and they become a couple despite the great age difference between them. The two of them move to Memphis for a time before settling in Little Rock essentially posing as a married couple. L.C. becomes a newspaper reporter and starts the Arkansas State Press in 1942, presenting a counterpoint to news outlets falsely claiming that Little Rock is racially moderate. Bates becomes something of a partier and nightlife personality until eventually L.C. divorces his first wife and legitimately marries Bates.

Bates’ marriage alters her outlook on life and media, as she spends more time at her husband’s newspaper and learns about how it operates and the ability of the press to influence public opinion. In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education officially desegregates the United States school system, sparking a great deal of protest and controversy across the nation. By this time, Bates has become a newspaper publisher herself, and is involved with organizations such as the NAACP. At one point she has a bid to become president of the NAACP, even attempting to form her own rival branch of the organization, causing tensions between herself and other African-American leaders. However, four years later she is elected state president of the NAACP in Arkansas anyway; this is notable since most women in the movement at the time are secretaries or assistants, and not generally in leadership positions themselves. Bates and L.C. work together on a campaign to desegregate Arkansas schools; she is motivated in part by her own unfinished education, hoping to give the next generation something that she was unable to have. She comes into conflict with Little Rock school superintendent Virgil Blossom, who works to keep schools segregated. He refuses Bates when she makes this request of him personally, and the NAACP retaliates by suing the school district. Bates suffers from discrimination during the trial itself, and eventually a deal is reached to integrate a single high school in the district, Central High, the largest high school in the state.

Following the trial, Bates attempts to encourage local students to transfer to Central High while Blossom opposes her efforts. Blossom disqualifies most students from eligibility to transfer, leaving only nine teenagers, who would come to be known as the “Little Rock Nine.” La Cruise, after interviewing Bates’ friends, feels as though she needs more information and looks through an unpublished early manuscript of her autobiography “The Long Shadow of Little Rock.” She recounts how in early September 1957 the media gathers around Little Rock for the integration of the Nine, and the governor announcing that the national guard are to be dispatched, ordering them to prevent any African-American person from entering the school as a political move to placate segregationist voters. Bates faces pressure from the NAACP to get the Nine into the school, while simultaneously struggling with her promise to their parents that their children would not be harmed. Trouble begins when one of the Nine, Elizabeth Eckford, becomes separated from the others and is mobbed by reporters, angry protestors, and national guardsmen. The Nine are kept out of the school, and the television news broadcasts footage of the event across the nation. Some accuse Bates of intentionally sending Elizabeth into the mob as a tactic to elicit sympathy, but Bates staunchly denies this. The incident with Elizabeth proves to be deeply emotional for Bates, who works to regain her trust.

The media coverage of the events at Central High make Bates and the Nine instantly famous and draws more support for the NAACP. Bates takes the opportunity to give a speaking tour around the country, shoring up further support, although she is reluctant to leave Little Rock as she feels that the Nine require her presence and assistance. At this time threats are made against Bates, her husband, and their home and livelihood if they do not withdraw their efforts at integration. Bates refuses to cooperate and she and L.C. fear the worst. Disgruntled white community members attack Bates by shooting firearms and throwing rocks at her house, breaking windows. She uses her media savvy and newspaper contacts to try to create positive press for herself and the Nine, countering the displays of violence. Bates also finds herself enjoying the attention, reveling in being the focus of reporters, cameramen, and other media people; she always puts on a smile or a happy demeanor, refusing to show “weakness” in the face of the adversity against her. She faces responsibilities on many fronts, including in court, to her staff in the NAACP, to the parents of the Nine, and to the African-American community of Little Rock in general. Tensions arise due to male African-American leaders being uncomfortable with her leadership position due to her being a woman. Despite the many people wishing to see the matter resolved, Bates proves to be one of the few with the assertiveness to take an active part in it.

It eventually takes a visit from President Eisenhower to make any progress as a federal judge orders the governor to disband the national guard troops at the school. However, the angry pro-segregation mob remains, and attempts to sneak the Nine through a side door prove to be unsuccessful. The mob emerges and starts a riot, attacking various African-American people. The police fear for the safety of the Nine and pull them out of school. Bates is undeterred by this setback, promising to take the matter directly to the White House if the Nine are not permitted to enter school. The story gains international attention, becoming a national embarrassment for the United States. In light of this, President Eisenhower signs an executive order in order to assign troops to the Nine, protecting them and allowing them to enter Central High. Bates is outwardly confident, but privately prays that she has taken the correct course of action. This garners more fame for Bates, being named by the Associate Press as one of their top women of 1957.

With this fame come personal attacks on her character in the media, largely from whites opposed to her integration efforts. She becomes increasingly fearful for her own safety, carrying a handgun and having friends guard her home constantly, as the police ignore her calls. Crosses are burned on her lawn and she deters multiple attempts at arson. A campaign by white politicians tries to force the NAACP to reveal its membership list. Bates is arrested when she refuses to give up the list. In response to this, Bates puts on a staged Thanksgiving dinner for herself and the Little Rock Nine for the benefit of television cameras. The Nine, although allowed to enter Central High, face constant abuse and threats of their own from teachers and other students. Eventually Bates finds that there is little she can do to help the Nine with their hardships. In 1958 the Nine are awarded the Spingarn Medal for their bravery and determination, but Bates’ name is left off of the award. The Nine argue that Bates deserves it as much as they do for all the dangers she suffered to get them into Central High, and the NAACP relents, allowing Bates to receive the award as well. Bates is criticized by some for seemingly exploiting the Nine in order to enhance her public image.

Despite the many difficulties, most of the Nine make it through the school year in 1958, and the oldest of them, Ernest Green, becomes the first African-American student to graduate from Central High. The graduation ceremony is off-limits to all African-Americans other than Green’s parents, but legendary civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. manages to attend on Bates’ behalf. Dr. King congratulates Green and Bates for their efforts. The struggles of the Nine prove to be inspirational to many civil rights groups across the nation, and Bates’ leadership inspires more women to take up the cause. However, Bates suffers further personal setbacks; by 1959 pressure from the community forces her and L.C. to declare the Arkansas State Press bankrupt. The societal and economic pressures around them cause turmoil in their relationship, and in 1960 Bates announces that she is leaving L.C. and Little Rock behind to move to New York City in order to write her autobiography. She spends the next two years there, enjoying the city’s nightlife in the process, fueling rumors of her separation from L.C. Her financial woes increase and she is forced to write her wealthy white friends for support; particularly after her autobiography experiences poor sales and unfavorable reviews. She returns to Little Rock and files for divorce from L.C. However, they find it difficult to separate and end up remarrying each other shortly thereafter.

Bates is one of the guest speakers for the March on Washington on April 28th, 1963. Bates and the other female speakers as the March are not invited to the White House to confer with the president as the male speakers are. By 1965, other civil rights stories attract the media’s attention and Bates is no longer as prominent in the news as she once was. In the late 1960’s, as the civil rights movement faces further challenges, Bates survives multiple strokes by the age of 54. However, she continues to pursue social change, becoming a “soldier” in the “War on Poverty” campaign, including working extensively in the impoverished all-African-American town of Mitchellville, Arkansas. She leaves after six years due to her failing health, but in her time there brings about extensive improvements to the town’s infrastructure and education. She suffers a third stroke in the 1970’s, giving her a noticeable speech impediment. On August 22nd, 1980, L.C. passes away at the age of 79 from a heart attack. In 1981 Bates re-starts the Arkansas State Press in accordance with L.C.’s final wishes. She works tirelessly at the paper, but becomes worn down after five years, admitting that it is time for her to retire. She is given an official salute by the White House on September 25th, 1997, the 40th anniversary of the Little Rock Integration Crisis. However, by this time she is virtually destitute due to her lack of steady income and ineligibility for social security. However, she maintains her gregarious nature and delights in the company of others. She eventually dies on November 4th, 1999 from a massive heart attack. She becomes the first African-American woman to lie in state in the Arkansas capital. Thousands proceed by her casket and lay daisies beside it as a show of appreciation for her efforts.

Details

  • NETWORK:
  • DATE:
  • RUNNING TIME: 1:18:17
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 121881
  • GENRE: Public affairs/Documentaries
  • SUBJECT HEADING: African-American Collection - News/Talk
  • SERIES RUN: PBS - TV, 2012
  • COMMERCIALS:

CREDITS

    • Sally Jo Fifer … Executive Producer
    • Jacquie Jones … Executive Producer
    • Sheila Maniar … Coordinating Producer
    • Sharon La Cruise … Producer, Director, Writer
    • W. Noland Walker … Co-Producer
    • Carol Bash … Field Producer
    • Tamisha Cheatham … Researcher
    • Jennifer Koenig … Researcher
    • Melvin Hayes … Cast, The Butcher
    • Summer Modica … Cast, Young Daisy Bates
    • Raymond Waters … Cast, Oralee Smith
    • Nastajae Alderson … Cast
    • Destiny Gaston … Cast
    • Shawn Pryor … Cast
    • Will Tolbert … Cast
    • Angela Bassett … Voice, Daisy Bates
    • Beatrice Epps … Interviewee
    • Laura Manning … Interviewee
    • Sybil Jordan Hampton … Interviewee
    • Aldon D. Morris … Interviewee
    • Lottie Brown Neely … Interviewee
    • Brynda Pappas … Interviewee
    • Annie Abrams … Interviewee
    • John A. Kirk … Interviewee
    • John W. Walker … Interviewee
    • Elizabeth Jacoway … Interviewee
    • Jefferson Thomas … Interviewee
    • Elizabeth Eckford … Interviewee
    • Billie Calloway … Interviewee
    • David Neely … Interviewee
    • Ernest Green … Interviewee
    • Minnijean Brown … Interviewee
    • Elena Giddings … Interviewee
    • Aldon D. Morris … Interviewee
    • C.C. Mercer … Interviewee
    • Edith Irby Jones … Interviewee
    • Ruby Jeffries … Interviewee
    • Alyce Love … Interviewee
    • Janis Kearney … Interviewee
    • Daisy Bates
    • Lucius Christopher Bates
    • Virgil Blossom
    • John Chancellor
    • Dwight D. Eisenhower
    • Orval Faubus
    • W. Averell Harriman
    • Martin Luther King Jr.
    • Thelma Mothershed
    • Melba Pattillo
    • Gloria Ray
    • Terrence Roberts
    • Bayard Rustin
    • Carlotta Walls