WASHINGTON — Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech.
While his immortal words will be rightfully remembered this week at celebrations here, in Arkansas and across the nation, King was not alone in drawing loud applause from the estimated 250,000 people assembled on the Capital Mall during the March on Washington.
Bates was not originally scheduled to speak but was called upon when Myrlie Evers, the widow of slain Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was unable to make the event. During a “Tribute to Women” segment, Bates delivered a brief but forceful message affirming the role of women in the civil-rights crusade.
“We will walk until we are free, until we can walk to any school and take our children to any school in the United States,” Bates said to resounding cheers. “And, we will sit-in, we will kneel-in and we will lie-in, if necessary, until every Negro in America can vote. This we pledge to the women of America.”
Grif Stockley, who wrote “Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas,” noted during a 2005 interview on C-Span television the role that Bates played in the 1963 March on Washington.
“Daisy Bates was the only woman who was allowed to speak at the March on Washington,” Stockley said. “It was a time of widespread sexism and women weren’t encouraged to participate.”
Bates, however, had been a leader in the civil-rights movement, gaining national attention as mentor and spokeswoman for nine black teenagers who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957 in the face of angry white mobs and then-Gov. Orval Faubus’ order for the Arkansas National Guard to block their path.
The students entered the school under escort by troops from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division deployed by President Dwight Eisenhower to enforce a federal desegregation order.
The Associated Press recognized Bates as “Woman of the Year in Education” in 1957 for her role in the civil rights milestone.
Bates chronicled the experience in her book, “The Long Shadow of Little Rock.”
To commemorate the March on Washington, President Barack Obama will speak Wednesday from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Bates and King stood 50 years earlier. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter will join him there.
A re-enactment of the March on Washington will also take place Wednesday at the Arkansas State Capitol. The event, which is being organized by the Arkansas Martin Luther King Junior Commission, will begin at 1 p.m. The “Let Freedom Ring” bell will peal at 2 p.m.