By Marilee Jolin
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be posting one story each day of March written by local citizen journalists about a revolutionary woman from history or today who has inspired them as women.
Too often, women are expected to be silent and submissive. We are still taught – implicitly and explicitly – that we are safest and most secure when we go quietly about our business, don’t rock the boat and make sure other people are comfortable. I have personally bought into this role in a big way and it is only recently that I am learning how to stand up and speak the truth, no matter who I offend.
And that is why I’m so inspired by Daisy Lee Gatson Bates.
Though she was a household name throughout the country in 1957 for her prominent role in the Little Rock Nine school integration crisis and is known in her home state as “the First Lady of Arkansas”, Ms. Bates’ legacy of unflinching resistance to injustice, despite great adversity, is still largely unknown and unappreciated.
Daisy Bates’ unwavering courage and leadership, as well as her tactical brilliance as the President of the Arkansas state NAACP and the main organizer of the Little Rock Nine action forever changed the image of segregation in America. Relentless in her support of the 9 young men and women integrating into Central High in Little Rock, tirelessly bold in holding those in power accountable and dauntless in the face of criticism that she was moving too fast or pushing too hard – I am in awe of the immense power displayed by this “small” woman.
First, taking huge personal and financial risks, Bates established The Arkansas State Press in 1941 along with her husband, L.C. Bates. The State Press met with immediate initial success – circulating 10,000 papers in their first year – proving how hungry people were for the Press’ coverage: shedding light on injustices ignored by the mainstream media and celebrating the beauty and goodness in the black community (it reminds this writer uncannily of the publication you are currently reading).
From its inception, The State Press took an unapologetic stance on issues of injustice and segregation, as well as police brutality. While aware of the risk, Daisy and her husband felt strongly that telling the truth was of utmost importance. But as Ms. Bates said in an interview, “no newspaper can survive without ad revenue” and the Press would ultimately close rather than bow to the demands of white business owners who boycotted the paper due to their anti-segregation editorial policy.
Filmmaker Sharon LaCruse, who chronicled Bates’ life in the documentary Daisy Bates: First Lady of Arkansas, says “At a time when women were expected to be silent, [Daisy Bates] was unafraid to speak the truth.” LaCruse even goes so far as to call Bates, “… fearless in her quest for justice… Unconventional and egotistical.”
We’ve all heard that “well-behaved women seldom make history” and yet we teach our daughters over and over that they must be well-behaved. We are so often told our value lies in our ability to stay in the shadows and make sure others shine; to not draw too much attention to ourselves, not be bossy and – above all else – not be “a bitch”.
But Ms. Bates did not concern herself with whether or not other people thought she was behaving as a lady should. Indeed, she is remembered in LaCruse’s documentary in this way: “She was not soft-spoken. She was not humble. She didn’t ask; she told. It just blew people’s minds. ‘Who is this woman acting like this? Who does she think she is?’”
In her interview for the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Ms. Bates recounts a time that a prominent pastor in the community went behind her back to raise support for an alternative “compromise” integration plan for the Central High School, rather than the forceful strategy Bates supported. He had to hold the meeting in secret because he said Daisy was too influential and powerful and people were afraid of her. Ms. Bates was informed of the meeting 20 minutes before it began and immediately rushed down to attend where she did, indeed, quash all support for the compromise plan. She did not pause to worry whether she was, as they said, “an outsider, stirring up trouble”; she didn’t get caught up in fear of whether these people liked her; she didn’t care – she simply stood up, with all her might, for what she knew to be right.
In reading about Daisy Bates I can’t help but think of other women recently in the spotlight for thwarting expectations of civility or ladylike behavior. My favorite quote about Daisy Bates refers to the shock and anger felt by many in the south when the 101st battalion marched into town to escort the Little Rock Nine safely into school. “My Gosh,” the historian imagines white folks saying as they look out at the soldiers, “you fail to keep a black woman under control and this is what happens!”
I can only hope that more and more often we fail to keep black women “under control”. That the Marissa Johnsons and Bree Newsomes of our country continue to break out and stand up in opposition to this unjust system.
For I truly believe women in general – and women of color, in particular – carry within the seeds of true justice and our mutual liberation. We know the truth and we will no longer stand shyly in the corner. We’re ready to move to the front, claiming boldly this great legacy of uncontrolled, poorly-behaved, justice-making women.
I hope we will make Daisy Bates proud.
Marilee Jolin lives on Beacon Hill with her husband, two daughters and grumpy dog. She’s ridiculously proud to spend her days at The Hillman City Collaboratory and her nights writing and editing for the South Seattle Emerald. Wine and chocolate fuel most of her worthwhile endeavors.
Featured Image: Modified from the original Central Avenue, leading to the state capitol Little Rock, Arkansas by Ewing Galloway