RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Half a century ago a rock shattered the picture window of a light brick house in Little Rock, Arkansas. A note was tied to it that read: Stone this time, dynamite next. The house belonged to Daisy and L.C. Bates. The couple led efforts to end segregation in Arkansas. On Monday the nation marks 50 years since black students integrated Central High School in Little Rock.

NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams remembers the woman behind the Little Rock Nine.

Ms. ANNIE ABRAMS (Daisy Bates' Friend): Mrs. Bates was the person for the moment.

Mr. ERNEST GREEN (Little Rock Nine): Daisy Bates was the poster child of black resistance. She was the quarterback, the coach. We were the players.

Ms. SYBIL JORDAN HAMPTON (Student, Central High School): She was conditioned to know that the civil rights movement was moving forward.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Daisy Bates helped drive the movement in Little Rock. That's how Annie Abrams, Ernest Green and Sybil Jordan Hampton remember her back then. Daisy Bates and her husband, L.C., were a team. She was the president of the Arkansas NAACP; he was its regional director. He was the publisher of the largest black newspaper in the state; she was his star reporter.

Mr. GREEN: The reason they were larger than life, Daisy and L.C. were always challenging whatever the prevailing attitude of white authority, of segregation, of restrictions, of Jim Crow.

WILLIAMS: Ernest Green was one of the Little Rock Nine, the group of students who integrated Central High. The story began in 1954, when the Supreme Court called for an end to segregated schools. Daisy Bates and the NAACP took the Little Rock school board to court. At the time, Ernest Green was attending Dunbar, the all-black high school in Little Rock.

Mr. GREEN: Daisy was in the papers indicating that she was going to challenge the Little Rock School Board to adhere to the '54 decision. So the reason that they put together this plan was because Daisy forced them to put the plan together.

WILLIAMS: The plan could work only if there were students - children, really - willing to be the first to possibly face violence and defy the segregationists. Daisy Bates helped recruit them, bright kids the school board couldn't turn down.

Ms. HAMPTON: I've known Ms. Bates since I was probably two years old, and I was a paper carrier for their newspaper from the time I was six.

WILLIAMS: Sybil Jordan Hampton was one of the children considered, though she wasn't selected as one of the original nine.

Ms. HAMPTON: I remember that she talked to my parents at an NAACP meeting, and she told my parents that she felt that my brother and I both would be good candidates. And she said to my parents that she hoped that she would have their support in our stepping forward.

WILLIAMS: Daisy Bates did win some parents over - even as the school board was pressuring them to keep their children at the all-black high school.

Ms. HAMPTON: You really needed a woman to go and talk with families and to give the assurance that the students were going to have a touch point of comfort. But she also was a very beautiful woman and the national press and other people found it just wonderful to have this star quality black woman.

WILLIAMS: Daisy Bates wore high heels everywhere, stylish dresses, and her friend Annie Abrams recalls her as one of the most glamorous, sophisticated black women in town. Daisy Bates had no children of her own, but...

Ms. ABRAMS: Daisy was hungry for children and children were attracted to her because she was a Lena Horne in our town.

WILLIAMS: It was unusual, in an era when black leaders were almost always men, for a black woman to take a leading role, especially in a drama that was playing out on the national stage.

The showdown came in the fall of 1957. Arkansas's governor, Orval Faubus, vowed, quote, "blood will run in the streets" if black students tried to enter Central High. On the first day of school, Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to turn the students away. Some two weeks passed and the nation waited to see what President Eisenhower would do.

Minniejean Brown Trickey and Ernest Green, two of the Little Rock Nine, remember the scene inside Daisy Bates's house.

Ms. MINNIEJEAN BROWN (Member, Little Rock Nine): The house was buzzing with media and people in and out. Things were happening. I mean, Thurgood Marshall was his amazing self. He explained things to us at a certain point and there were quite a few great minds there who were passing on information and laughing and talking.

Mr. GREEN: What I remember at Ms. Bates's house is that, you know, you had all of this drama going on, but we were still teenagers, you know. We were worried about how we were going to look getting into the Jeep. Why couldn't we have two Jeeps instead of one? And Daisy said, look, this is a very important moment. The fact that the president of the United States has sent the United States Army here to escort you into school means that this government is finally serious about school desegregation.

WILLIAMS: Eisenhower had acted, sending the 101st Airborne to escort the children to high school. The next days and weeks, Daisy Bates's house was still headquarters for the Little Rock Nine.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man: Ms. Bates, how do you feel with your work both with school authorities, with the city authorities and with the military authorities that the situation is developing now?

Ms. DAISY BATES (Civil Rights Activist): Very well. The military authorities, they've been very nice to the children, as well as the school board, and the city police.

WILLIAMS: By week's end, Central High had been integrated. Ernest Green - the only senior in the group - graduated the following spring. Martin Luther King Jr. attended the graduation ceremony. Daisy Bates could not. Her face and name were better known in the city than King's, and her presence might have stirred violence. Fifty years later, her legacy is complicated. She wrote a book about her part in the drama in 1962.

Ms. TRICKEY: Actually, I think she has in her writing expanded what her role was with us.

WILLIAMS: Minniejean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, thinks Bates took too much credit.

Ms. TRICKEY: And part of that is unfortunate because she emerged as the spokesperson for the Little Rock Nine. And our parents, by and large, were silenced. I'll tell you one thing: It was my dad who lost his job. It was my mother who got the terror calls. It was my mother who was frightened for my life. And they were the heroes of this.

WILLIAMS: Sybil Jordan Hampton thinks Daisy Bates was also heroic.

Ms. JORDAN: Mrs. Bates was an extraordinarily complex woman. An incident thrust her into the forefront of a movement. And I always have felt that Mrs. Bates was a tragic figure.

WILLIAMS: Fifty years on, the woman who had been at the center of the Little Rock movement is barely remembered. Her home, where it all happened, was nearly lost after her husband passed away and money was tight. Daisy Bates died in 1999. She became the first - and still only - African-American to lie in state in the Arkansas Capitol, the same building once occupied by Governor Faubus.

On that same day, the Little Rock Nine were honored at the White House by Bill Clinton, the president from Arkansas.

Juan Williams, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: On Monday, a soldier from the 101st Airborne remembers his role in Little Rock. You'll find a timeline of the crisis at npr.org.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.