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Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957

In September 1957, nine African American teenagers enrolled in Little Rock’s Central High School to integrate the city’s schools in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The “Little Rock Nine,” as they came to be called, were prevented from entering Central — first by a mob, then by the Arkansas National Guard who’d been called out by Governor Orval Faubus.

Several weeks later, after the incident and its photos made international headlines, President Dwight Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to escort the Nine to school. These photos of the triumph of law over bigoted mob rule also were seen around the world.

Throughout the entire process, the driving force behind the effort was Mrs. Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP and wife of L.C. Bates, owner of the Arkansas State Press, an African-American newspaper published in Little Rock. A controversial and lightning-rod figure to many, Mrs. Bates was dogged in her pursuit of equality in education, and in speaking out against the injustice of segregation.

PBS’s “Independent Lens” recently broadcast a captivating biography of Daisy Bates, directed by Sharon La Cruise. The filmmaker had gone through college and graduate school never having heard of the determined activist. But during my childhood, Daisy Bates was a household name. Though I didn’t grow up there, my parents were from Little Rock, as were my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom attended Little Rock High School, later known as Central. One aunt and uncle were students during the tumultuous 1957-58 school year. I watched this film closely and with great interest, hoping to see locales I recognized, hoping not to see faces that I knew. Though I’d read Bates’ biography, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, the film presents a fascinating and complex portrait of a very human woman who blazed trails to do a great good.

I highly recommend the film. But don’t wait too long — it’s only available on the PBS site until February 17. Here’s the link:

Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock



© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

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