Remembering struggle to desegregate schools in U.S. south

By Murphy Browne Wednesday September 03 2014 in Opinion
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MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)


“You’re filled with hatred. Hate can destroy you, Daisy. Don’t hate white people just because they’re white. If you hate, make it count for something. Hate the humiliations we are living under in the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the soul of every black man and woman. Hate the insults hurled at us by white scum-and then try to do something about it, or your hate won’t spell a thing.”


From: “The Long Shadow of Little Rock! A Memoir” published in 1962 by Daisy Bates.


On Wednesday September 4, 1957 a group of nine African-American high school students attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Little Rock Nine as they would eventually become known were supported by Civil Rights activist Daisy Bates and her husband, newspaper (Arkansas State Press) editor and owner, Lucius Christopher Bates.

Daisy Lee Gatson-Bates was born on November 11, 1914 during a time when African-American women in the southern United States were routinely raped by White men and if the African-American women resisted they were brutally killed by the White rapists. When Daisy Bates was only a few months old her mother was kidnapped, raped and murdered by three White men.


Like many African-Americans whose loved ones were brutalized or lynched by their White compatriots, her father was forced to flee his home or be murdered by his wife’s murderers. It was common practice among White southerners to attack and kill the relatives of any of their African-American victims.


Daisy Bates was told of her parents’ fate when she was eight years old and for the next seven years she thought constantly about finding and punishing the men who had raped and murdered her mother. When she was 15 years old her adoptive father pleaded with her to let go of the hatred she felt for the people who had killed her mother and forced her father to flee his home leaving his infant daughter to be raised by a childless couple. Gatson-Bates’ life changed after that conversation with her adoptive father who transitioned later the same day. In her autobiography “The Long Shadow of Little Rock” she writes that she experienced a “rebirth” after that “death bed” conversation with her adoptive father.


After marrying L.C. Bates and moving to Little Rock, Arkansas the couple launched their weekly newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, as a medium to draw attention to the inequities African-Americans were subjected to by the White supremacist culture in which they lived. Articles and editorials about Civil Rights were often published on the front page. Throughout its 18-year existence (1941-1959) the Arkansas State Press was the largest African-American newspaper in Arkansas and its uncompromising stance in favour of Civil Rights made it unique in Arkansas.


As a Civil Rights activist, Gatson-Bates was also involved in several organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was elected President of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP in 1952 and played a crucial role in the desegregation of the school system in Arkansas. In 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States decided that segregation was unconstitutional in the USA with their ruling in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. Even after that ruling, African-American students who attempted to attend White schools were refused entry throughout the south including Arkansas. Gatson-Bates and her husband documented/published these incidents of non-compliance with the law in the Arkansas State Press.


The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate public schools in the U.S. was handed down in May 1954, yet most schools in the Southern U.S. were still segregated along racial lines three years later.


On September 4, 1957, when the nine African-American students in Little Rock, Arkansas attempted to enter Central High School, then Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, in a move that was clearly illegal, called out the National Guard to prevent them from enrolling.


Gatson-Bates was the driving force in the desegregation effort in Little Rock, Arkansas on September 4, 1957. As President of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, she contributed to the legal challenge against the Arkansas School Board for its reluctance to desegregate schools. In February 1956, 33 children, represented by the NAACP with Gatson-Bates as President filed suit in the federal court for the Eastern District of Arkansas because the school board was denying African-American children their constitutional rights by maintaining segregated schools.


The African-American community had tried to get the government to build schools for African-American students that were on par with those attended by White students. Failing that African-Americans demanded access to the schools that White children attended. The schools African-American children attended were woefully inadequate. Many of the schools were housed in little more than falling down shacks where the children had to gather around pot-bellied stoves to stay warm in the winter. Schools attended by White children were in many cases majestic buildings with state of the art equipment to which African-American taxpayer money contributed.


Gatson-Bates gained the attention and hatred of White Arkansas during the desegregation court case when she challenged the school board’s White lawyer’s use of her first name. It was unheard of for any African-American man or woman to challenge a White person’s right to call them any name including “boy” and “gal”.


After the board’s lawyer questioned her on the stand Gatson-Bates reportedly said: “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.”


This sent shock waves through the White community and not surprisingly there was retaliation in the form of death threats. A rock was thrown through a window shattering the glass and delivering a message to cease and desist the challenge to White authority. The note attached to the rock read: “Stone this time. Dynamite next.”


Gatson-Bates was not deterred and continued her advocacy to desegregate Little Rock schools as the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education stated. On a mission she recruited African-American students who were up for the challenge of desegregating the schools of Little Rock, Arkansas. The chosen students had to be high achieving and willing to accept abuse without complaining or reacting. These children and their parents knew the risks they were taking by going against the White supremacist culture of the USA, especially in the “Bible Belt” south. These were the same kind of people who had lynched a 14-year-old African-American youth for allegedly whistling at a White woman. And they did not disappoint. Arkansas governor Faubus promised: “Blood will run in the streets” if African-American students tried to enter Central High School. On September 4, 1957 Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block the African-American students from entering the school.


On September 4, 1957 when 15 year old Elizabeth Eckford arrived at the Central High School on her own and attempted to enter she was blocked by armed National Guards. Then the traumatized child was terrorized by a White mob shouting: “Lynch her, lynch her” as she fled for her life. Eckford did not have a telephone and was not notified of the last minute change of plans that the students would go to school as a group escorted by African-American adults including Gatson-Bates. The White violence to which the group of eight was subjected forced them to retreat and return to the home of their mentor, Gatson-Bates, to strategize.


It was a traumatic and horrific time for the Bates husband and wife team as well as the students and their parents. The sacrifices that were made at that time are almost unimaginable in terms of the resulting physical injury, spirit injury and emotional injury from which many continue to suffer. In this 21st century many of our children are emotionally and spiritually injured in a White supremacist culture where they and their history and culture are not valued and there is the dreaded school-to-prison pipeline. Some of our children manage to cope regardless while many others are pushed out because of racial profiling in its myriad forms. As our children return to schools in this Great White North where many of them continue to suffer emotional and spirit injury which manifests in their reactions and behaviour in and out of school we need to remain vigilant.

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