Daisy Bates: The Art of the Dignified Response

So many heroes, so little time.

Thousands of people, perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands of people, were part of the Civil Rights Movement. Some, like Martin Luther King, Jr., have a national holiday to honor their memory. Some are folks whose heroism has been lost to time. But they should all be cited and celebrated as often as possible.

That’s why it’s been a joy for me to read DAISY BATES: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas, by Grif Stockley. Who was Daisy Bates? Consider this description of her from the book:

As a college-educated white Arkansan remembered in 2002, “Daisy Bates was our Osama Bin Ladin.” As outrageous and grimly ludicrous as this comparison is, it captures the emotions of the white community at the time.

And what did Bates do that made her comparable to a mass-murdering terrorist? She wanted to make it possible for black children and white children to go to school together in the 1950s. Such was the insanity of her times.

Daisy Bates, Arkansas Civil Rights Activist

Bates’s main notoriety is from her role as the “advisor” to the Little Rock Nine. A history of Bates is here and here; there are many others on the Internet. But I want to share a passage from the book by Stockley that tells a great story.

This takes place in 1956. After the historic Brown decision, the black community in Little Rock sought to integrate the city’s public schools. However, the school system moved in deliberate slowness, showing little desire to have blacks sit with whites. Several students and parents filed suit against the schools to speed-up the integration process. The case was called Aaron v. Cooper. From Stockley’s book:

Aaron v. Cooper would provide the legal backdrop for the 1957 crisis in Little Rock. In deposing the local leaders of the NAACP, the city’s school board lawyers attempted to show that the plaintiffs had been put up to the suit by the NAACP national office in New York, but the questioning wasn’t going well.

Earlier in the morning, Rev. J. C. Crenchaw, president of the Little Rock branch of the NAACP, had been vague about membership and contributions. Daisy Bates’s answers were no better. A highly respected member of the Little Rock legal community, Leon Catlett, whose main client was the powerful Reynolds Aluminum Company, had no particular reputation as a race baiter; however, he was surely growing a bit frustrated with Bates, whom he continually referred to as Daisy. There was nothing unusual here. A time-honored control technique of white supremacy was to strip blacks of their dignity by calling them by their first names as though they were children.

According to the Arkansas Gazette, “On one occasion, Mrs. Bates corrected Catlett on his pronunciation of Negro. It was a quick interjection and passed without comment, but Catlett changed his pronunciation of the word thereafter.” In fact, though the paper didn’t make it explicit, “during Catlett’s questioning of Bates he occasionally referred to the NAACP’s ‘nigger’ leaders.”

As the afternoon session got under way, Bates

leaned forward in her chair and said to Catlett: “You addressed me several times this morning by my first name. That is something that is reserved for my intimate friends and my husband. You will refrain from calling me Daisy.”
Without hesitating, Catlett shot back, “I won’t call you anything then.”

For a black person to confront a white person in 1956 in Little Rock publicly and in this manner was a shot across the bow of white supremacy in Arkansas and in the South. For centuries, an unwritten racial etiquette dictated that blacks in the South publicly assume an attitude of deference in their dealings with whites. For a black woman to insist on her dignity in so public a forum in the Jim Crow South-well, that took one’s breath away. It was also news.

Ironically, Bates was able to come off so well in this exchange in part because of white male chauvinism. Had a black male confronted Catlett, he might have been told, “Boy, I’ll call you whatever I want to and don’t you forget it,” and then suffered an act of retribution. But again, as she often would do, Bates used her femininity to advance her cause.

It was a defining moment in her burgeoning career as a civil rights leader. Henceforth, blacks in Little Rock and throughout Arkansas, whether they liked it or not (and many would not), knew they had a leader who dared to confront whites face-to-face and as an equal. Little Rock whites reading their favorite newspaper the next morning knew the enemy was not just in the New York office of the NAACP or in the pages of the Arkansas State Press, the weekly civil rights newspaper published by Daisy Bates and her husband, L. C. Bates.

Naturally, the State Press reported the exchange, adding that she had calmly responded to Catlett after his retort, “That’ll be fine.”

PS: Daisy Bates does in fact have a holiday of her own. An Arkansas state holiday has been named in her honor. The third Monday in February of every year (the same day as President’s Day) is also Daisy Gatson Bates day in Arkansas. Arkansas is the first (only?) state to honor an African American female with a state holiday.

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