Daisy Lee Gaston Bates, a civil rights advocate, newspaper publisher, and president of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), advised the nine students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Martin Luther King offered encouragement to Bates during this period, telling her in a letter that she was “a woman whom everyone KNOWS has been, and still is in the thick of the battle from the very beginning, never faltering, never tiring” (Papers 4:446).
Bates was born in 1914 in the small town of Huttig, Arkansas. Following the murder of her biological mother and the disappearance of her father, family friends Orlee and Susan Smith raised her. At an early age she developed a disdain for discrimination, recalling in her autobiography, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, an incident when a local butcher told her, “Niggers have to wait ’til I wait on the white people” (Bates, 8).
At the age of 15 she met L. C. Bates, a journalist and insurance salesman whom she married in 1941. The pair soon founded the Arkansas State Press, an avidly pro-civil rights newspaper. Bates became an outspoken critic of segregation, using the paper to call for an improvement in the social and economic conditions of blacks throughout Arkansas. When the Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that outlawed segregation in public schools, the State Press began clamoring for integration in Little Rock schools. As the state president of the NAACP, a position she had assumed in 1952, Bates worked closely with the black students who volunteered to desegregate Central High School in the fall of 1957. The story of the “Little Rock Nine” quickly became national news when white residents rioted and threatened the physical safety of Bates and the students.
During this time King reached out to the Arkansas civil rights leader. In a 26 September 1957 telegram sent during the Little Rock school desegregation crisis, King urged Bates to “adhere rigorously to a way of non-violence,” despite being “terrorized, stoned, and threatened by ruthless mobs.” He assured her: “World opinion is with you. The moral conscience of millions of white Americans is with you.” In May 1958 King stayed with Bates and her husband when he spoke at the Arkansas Agricultural and Mechanical College commencement, and soon afterward invited her to be the Women’s Day speaker at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in October of that year. During the same year, Bates was elected to the executive committee of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Bates later moved to Mitchellville, Arkansas, and became director of the Mitchellville Office of Equal Opportunity Self-Help Project. In 1999, following a series of strokes, she died at the age of 84.