African-American woman who made a difference

February is Black History Month. This observation stems from the desire of the historian, Carter G. Woodson, to educate people about the contributions of African-Americans. The African-American woman has always emerged as the great mainstay of her race; she has achieved in all fields of endeavor. She was not always a member of the National Association of Negro Women; she nevertheless swelled the chorus of that organization’s battle song, “Lifting As We Climb.” She will always be a gleaming inspiration for generations to come.

Who Was Mrs. Daisy Bates?

It is indeed an honor to name a state holiday in honor of Mrs. Daisy Bates, born in Huttig, Arkansas, in 1922. I first heard of Mrs. Bates from my father, the late Fred Griffith, and his best friend, Ellis Morgan. Both were walking black history encyclopedias and always shared their knowledge with the community. They were avid readers of the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier and the Arkansas State Press. I learned from them that Mrs. Bates and her husband, L.C. Bates, a newspaperman, started the Arkansas State Press in 1941 in Little Rock. The paper wrote on the problems of Negro people, things such as job discrimination, police brutality, poor housing, unequal education and other injustices. The paper became a major voice for Negro Civil Rights. In 1942, after disclosing the brutal details of the murder of a black soldier by white policeman, Mrs. Bates lost support from angry white businessmen. To keep the paper in circulation, she began working 18 hours a day and her readership grew to 20,000.

In 1954, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. The Board of Education, Mrs. Bates and the state NAACP began to pressure Little Rock’s Board of Education to abide by the new law. They selected 17 Negro students to enroll at Central High School, but eight withdrew because of fear, leaving the “Little Rock Nine” to attempt desegregation. At the time Mrs. Bates was the state president of the NAACP and became the spokeswoman, consultant and mentor for the nine negro students. Whites did not want the Negroes to attend the school, including then-Gov. Orval Eugene Faubus, who sent the Arkansas National Guard to Central High on Sept. 3, 1957, to ensure that they would not get in. Mrs. Bates, along with the students, became the target for angry whites. Her home was vandalized, crosses were burned in her yard and her life was threatened. Although it didn’t stop her, the Arkansas State Press was forced to shut down during this time.

On Oct. 31, 1957, the city council met at City Hall and ordered the arrest of all of the NAACP officials. They were all charged with violating a city ordinance that had been passed two weeks earlier, requiring all organizations to supply information regarding their operations upon the request of the city. The nation’s press widely publicized their arrests. After failing to get a reversal in the Circuit Court and the State Supreme Court, the NAACP attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the initial ruling was reversed.

The Arkansas State Press no longer would tell their stories; nevertheless, across the country, newspapers, television stations and radios all closely followed the situation unfolding in Little Rock. Then-President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the U.S. Army to protect the Little Rock Nine and restore order in the state’s capitol. On Sept. 25, 1957, soldiers from the 101st Division escorted the Little Rock Nine into Central High. This was the first time in 81 years that the president had to dispatch troops to the South to protect the constitutional rights of Negroes. Mrs. Bates was a dominant figure in the outcome of this crucial moment in history.

One summer day in 1984, I had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Bates after she had revitalized the Arkansas State Press. She called and asked me to meet her at the local office where she asked me to join the staff as the food editor. On Aug. 8, 1984, I published the first column entitled “Cooking with ‘Lene’” and became the first black woman to publish a weekly statewide food column. In 1988, I also became a featured writer on the staff and remained with the paper until it ended its publication. I enjoyed the many conversations with Mrs. Bates; she was truly an outstanding woman and an American hero in the truest sense. More than 40 years after the hostile desegregation of Central High and the sight of Mrs. Bates’ home still invites images of a crusader in the best American tradition. Armed with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, she sought out the justice and freedom that is deserved by all Americans regardless of race or color.

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Earlene Griffith Stennis is a retired teacher from Watson Chapel High School. She lives in Pine Bluff.