(WOMENSENEWS)–In 1997, while living in Atlanta, I attended a photo exhibit that would change my life.
"I Dream a World: Portraits of 75 African American Women Who Changed America," by photographer Brian Lanker, included beautiful and dramatic photographs of women, some famous and others unknown.
I bought the coffee-table companion book and spent hours reading about incredible women who despite great hardships, accomplished great things. One of them, on page 72, was an older woman wearing large glasses, her arms folded, standing in front of an imposing brick structure.
Her name was Daisy Bates, a newspaper publisher, head of the Arkansas NAACP in Little Rock, Ark., and a driving force in desegregating Little Rock’s Central High School.
I knew the story of the famous opposition, in 1957, by local authorities against implementing the Supreme Court’s anti-segregationist ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. But I didn’t remember Bates’ involvement. I learned that after the Brown decision Bates, as a leader of the NAACP, demanded the entry of black students into any of the all-white schools in Little Rock. This fight was very personal. Bates’ own education hadn’t gone beyond the eighth grade and she knew that the world of an uneducated black child was very small.
In the book, Bates said that when she was a child she learned two very important lessons–the first was what it meant to be black in the South. The second was that her entire life had been built on a lie. When she was 8 years old a playmate, a young boy, told her that she wouldn’t be so stuck up if she knew what happened to her "real" mother. When she returned home she confronted her parents, who were forced to tell her the true story of her birth parents.
A Local Legend
One hundred years later, that story is a local legend in Huttig, Ark., where Bates was born. According to residents, Bates’ mother was a very beautiful teenager who was dating her father; the couple was not married. One night, while Bates’ father was at work, her mother was raped and then killed by three white men from Huttig. There is speculation that Bates’ mother knew her assailants, but no one is sure why she was killed. Her body was dumped in a pond where she was found the next day by fishermen.
When Bates’ father found out about the murder he was scared for his own life. He left and the toddler wound up being adopted.
Residents told me that Bates’ father’s fear was justified. In those days when bad things happened to one black person, everyone got scared. One murder could lead to a wave of killings against the entire community. The men who committed the crime were never prosecuted and lived out their lives in Huttig.
Learning about the loss of her mother ended Bates’ childhood and defined her adulthood.
I became fascinated by the thought of that 8-year-old child who in one day learned she was an orphan and realized that being black meant you lived in a world where your life was insignificant. I wrote Bates and told her how much I admired her and thought her life story should be turned into a documentary film. She responded through her attorney that she would love to explore the idea further.
I was beyond thrilled to hear back, but then realized I had no idea how to produce a full-length documentary. I’d studied at New York University’s School of Journalism but didn’t have a lot of filmmaking experience. So I wasted two years dreaming of producing a documentary, not realizing how ill Bates was. On Nov. 4, 1999, I woke up to hear NPR reading Bates’ obituary. I was devastated.
Seven Long Years
Five years later though, in 2004, I decided to make the documentary after all. I’d gained experience by then and thought I was ready. But it took me seven long years to complete the film, as I worked on other projects and scraped by on funding. I was the director, producer and bottle-washer in one. I managed to hire some researchers, but did most of it myself. Kind friends helped me out on the script.
I read everything I could about Little Rock Central High. I found hundreds of books, but little information about Bates that went beyond her 1962 autobiography. Strangely enough, I also discovered there were no adult books on Bates’ life; only children’s books. She was mentioned in books about women in the civil rights movement, but even in them she didn’t warrant a chapter. But the books still contained valuable information that I used to build a list of sources, from whom I pieced together the puzzle pieces of Bates’ life.
In Arkansas I met several people who wound up in the film, including film historian Elizabeth Jacoway, community activist Annie Abrams and Laura Manning from Bates’ hometown of Huttig. They opened their homes and hearts to me and over a period of several years showed me Arkansas in a way that has made the state a second home.
After much digging I found that the bedrock of Bates’ life was her husband L.C. Bates, an older man who developed her political thinking and taught her the newspaper business. Together they built the Arkansas State Press into the state’s largest black newspaper.
When Bates took her public stance to desegregate Central High School, her husband backed her up. He was the man behind the woman, an unusual position for a man of the 1950s.
Secrets to the Grave
Some details of the marriage I can still only guess at. At a certain point I had to accept that Bates took many secrets to the grave with her and that was her right. But she left plenty behind.
Many times during filming, when my spirits were low and fundraising was an issue, I thought of the obstacles Bates had overcome and felt humbled. Nothing in my life could compare.
I hope the movie I have made, "Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock," will remind others that 10 percent of life is what happens to you and 90 percent is how you deal with it.
I hope that when young adults see the film they will also see the lesson of Bates’ life: that you do not have to be defined by the circumstances of your childhood. Although things might happen beyond your control, you can make choices in your life that will determine who you will become as a human being.
Bates’ example is particularly important for young women. She came of age during a time when women, especially black women, with dreams and ambitions were locked out of mainstream society. Discouraged from getting an education or aspiring to much, many were relegated to menial jobs with low pay and no benefits. Out of necessity, and sometimes desperation, these women were forced into unconventional paths, sacrificing personal lives in pursuit of their forbidden ambitions.
The story of Bates, born in 1914 in southern Arkansas, belongs to a specific time and place. But it’s also universal and timeless; a story of a woman who faced wrongs and tried to right them.
We can all honor her memory by doing the same, in whatever ways we find possible.
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Sharon La Cruise works as an associate for the Ford Foundation in its JustFilms unit. She is a member of the International Documentary Association. She has worked on movies made by Blackside Inc., Firelight Media, Roja Productions, The Faith Project, The Coca-Cola Company, the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and the Cable News Network. Some of the other movies she has worked on include "Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, Shut up and Sing"; "Going Up River: The Long War of John Kerry"; and "Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise."
ITVS’s Women and Girls Lead campaign is an innovative public media initiative designed to focus, educate and connect women, girls and their allies across the globe to address the challenges of the 21st century. "Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock" will be premiering on the PBS award-winning series Independent Lens on Feb. 2 at 10 p.m. Check local listings to find out when Independent Lens airs in your area.
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