Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Forgotten Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock

Daisy Bates was an instrumental leader in the victorious Little Rock school desegregation campaign, but she is hardly mentioned in histories of the civil rights movement. Could it be the civil rights establishment was uncomfortable sharing the spotlight with a woman? That is not something documentarian Sharon La Cruise implies. She more or less says it outright in Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock (trailer here), which premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens this Thursday.

As the wife of a respected African American newspaper publisher, Bates was prominent in the community, but she became an activist and leader in her own right. She does not seem to have been the type to suffer fools gladly. Though aesthetically attractive to us in this day and age, her assertiveness led to serious difficulties in the 1950’s. More than anyone, she was responsible for recruiting and supporting the so-called “Little Rock Nine,” who desegregated Central High, despite constant intimidation from the rabble encouraged by white Democrat Governor Orval Faubus. Clearly, she was the right person to assume the leadership mantle, but it appears from interviews with some of the Nine, she did not exactly wait to be asked.

Bates is a fascinating figure, with plenty of virtues and flaws to take into balanced consideration. Unfortunately, La Cruise sometimes injects herself into the story to explain what a revelation it all was to her, which needlessly wastes time in a broadcast cut clocking-in just under sixty minutes.

To her credit though, she does not lob cheap shots at Eisenhower. Instead, the film recognizes it is not an easy course of action to deploy American troops on their home soil, but when enough got to be enough, Ike did exactly that. La Cruise describes it as a victory for Bates within the civil rights community, which seems fair enough. After all, she somehow held things together up to that point.

Overall, First Lady is a brisk and informative chapter of overlooked Twentieth Century history, particularly well attuned to the difficult choices faces by its principle players. Recommended for its straightforwardness, it airs on Independent Lens this Thursday (2/2), as part of its special February programming.