She was born Daisy Lee Gatson on November 11, 1914, in Huttig, Arkansas and endured a childhood marred by tragedy. Her mother was raped and murdered by three white men. Her father left her. She was raised by friends of the family.
As a teenager, Daisy Lee Gatson met Lucious Christopher “L. C.” Bates, an insurance agent and an experienced journalist; they married in the early 40s and moved to Little Rock, to run a small, weekly African-American newspaper, the Arkansas State Press. The newspaper was an early champion of civil rights, and through her involvement with it, Daisy Lee Bates became the president of Arkansas chapter of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People--NAACP--in 1952.
During her tenure as the head of the NAACP’s Arkansas branch, Bates played a crucial role in the fight against segregation. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court declared that school segregation was unconstitutional--Brown v. Board of Education--and yet even after that ruling, African American students who tried to enroll in white schools were turned away in Arkansas.
Bates and her husband chronicled this battle in their newspaper.
In 1957, she helped a group of African American students to become the first to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock; this group became known as the Little Rock Nine. They first tried to go to Central on September 4, but a group of angry whites jeered at them when they arrived.
Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, who opposed school integration, sent members of the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school. Despite the enormous amount of animosity they faced from white residents of Little Rock, the students and Daisy Lee Bates were undeterred from their mission to attend the school.
Bates used her own home as headquarters for the battle to integrate Central High School, and she served as a personal advocate and supporter to the students. President Dwight D. Eisenhower became involved in the conflict by ordering federal troops to Little Rock to uphold the law and protect the Little Rock Nine.
With U.S. soldiers providing security, the Little Rock Nine left from Bates’ home for their first day of school on September 25, 1957. Bates remained close with the Little Rock Nine, offering her continuing support as they faced harassment and intimidation from people against desegregation.
Bates also received numerous threats, but this would not stop her from her work. The newspaper she and her husband worked on was closed in 1959 because of low advertising revenue, but three years later, her account of the school integration battle was published as The Long Shadow of Little Rock.
Daisy Lee Bates moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Democratic National Committee and on antipoverty projects for the Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, but she returned to Little Rock in the mid-60s. From then on she spent most of her time on community programs.
After the death of her husband in 1980, she resuscitated the Arkansas State Press for a few years, until 1988.
Daisy Lee Bates died on November 4, 1999, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The name Daisy Lee Bates isn't a well-known one, in terms of Black history, but she is remembered for her steadfast refusal to let anyone, even children be seen as 'less than' anyone else.