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Civil rights hero remembered in new film

Staff reporter

Published: Monday, January 30, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 18:02

Daisy Bates with the Little Rock Nine.

Photo courtesy of Daisy Bates

Daisy Bates with the Little Rock Nine.

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When the American civil rights movement is mentioned, we usually conjure images of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, or Rosa Park's defiance on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.

Often, though, we don't acknowledge the contributions of women like Daisy Bates. A far less celebrated, yet key figure of the struggle for equality, this Arkansas-native played an instrumental role in the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court's historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, calling for the desegregation of schools throughout the nation, the Little Rock School Board unanimously approved a plan of gradual integration.

Three years later, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed and Melba Pattillo Beals – the Little Rock Nine – would become the first black students to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High.

"Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock," directed by Sharon La Cruise, is an hour-long exploration of Bates's life.

Since learning at an early age of her mother's gruesome rape and murder by a group of white men, Bates thought it a necessity to "oppose hatred and prejudice." Through her decades of work on the Arkansas State Press, and her public support of the Little Rock Nine, the film details her constant fight until her 1999 death for equality for both African Americans and women of all colors.

The Chicago Cultural Center hosted a screening of the film on Jan. 21, which will begin airing on PBS in February.

"There's a strength that comes from struggle. [Daisy Bates] exemplified that," asserted Sylvia Fischer, who took part in a discussion about civil rights and feminist movements following the screening.

Along with Fischer, area activists Fannie Rushing and Lorne Cress Love reflected on the film, their experiences as women fighting for equality in 20th-century America, and the issues we continue to face in the 21st century.

Rushing, a history Ph.D from the University of Chicago who has lectured at, among other places, Northwestern, Columbia College and Depaul, says "Daisy Bates: First of Lady of Little Rock" brought her to tears.

"I could not help but think of the long struggle of African American people in this country," she said. "Not from 1960, but from 1619. And the valor of those young people as they walked and faced those crowds. It was just amazing to see the kind of strength they had – the kind of commitment they had."

But it's important, Rushing added, that "when the story is told, everyone is included," noting that the struggles of both African Americans and women were integral in making this country what it is today.

"I don't think there was anyone in the movement, male or female, that did not benefit from the contributions of women," she said.

Lorne Cress Love, a longtime activist in the Woodlawn community, also had to fight back tears.

"The human sacrifice made," she said, recalling images of the daily harassment the Little Rock Nine faced, "even in the film, is difficult to explain."

David Neely, attorney and cousin of Daisy Bates, who took care of her during her final days, also joined the discussion.

"Daisy had a lot of fire," he told the crowd. "She deserves a Medal of Honor."

Our country has surely seen much progress toward equality for all since those nine children stepped through the doors of Little Rock Central High. But Fanning, Fischer, Rushing and Neely passionately stressed that there is much more to be done. Especially when it comes to education.

"The civil rights of the present time," said Fischer, is fighting against a "lack of good education for poor kids – white and black."

"When I look today, I have to shake my head," Neely said. "At one point we had to have the military escort us to schools. Today there are a lot of children who you can't get to even go."

Admittedly inheriting his own anger from Daisy, Neely implored the crowd to provide a solid foundation for children, and stand up for a quality education outside of the home.

"Children are our future," he stressed.

The group began their discussion by telling those in attendance, young and old, to be unafraid of pushing for change, saying that Daisy Bates wasn't trained to be a leader.

Love stated "there was no preparation" for her role and the effect she would have.

"Here was a woman who saw one issue, stepped forward, and her entire life and the world were changed," Love said.

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