By Sharon La Cruise
Thursday, February 2, 2012
"Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock" broadcasts Feb. 2 at 10 p.m. on the PBS series Independent Lens, or check local listings. Filmmaker Sharon La Cruise describes getting hooked on a little-known story of triumph over adversity.
(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.
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.
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