At the outset of Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock, filmmaker Sharon La Cruise admits that despite having studied the Civil Rights Movement in college, she only stumbled upon the extraordinary story of the woman that organized the Little Rock Nine many years later. The majority of those who attended January’s Community Cinema screening had also never heard of Daisy Bates and her fight to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
After viewing the documentary, which will air on KCPT on February 2, 2012 at 10pm, attendees discussed current issues of race and education in Kansas City and the largely untold story of women leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.
Community Cinema co-organizer and UMKC professor Caitlin Horsmon shared the story of local woman Corinthian B. Nutter, who lead the desegregation of an elementary school in Merriam, Kansas five years prior to Brown v. Board of Education. Like Bates, Nutter’s story has largely faded from the community’s consciousness. However, Horsmon is currently working a documentary about Nutter’s contributions to the fight for equal education.
Two women, who grew up in and around Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, also happened to attend the screening. Although these women did not know each other, they sat only a few feet apart and revisited some of the most traumatic moments of their childhood.
Lillian Buchanan grew up in a small township about 30 miles northeast of Little Rock, AR and had never heard of Daisy Bates. She says that she remembers it being a very frightening and uncomfortable time for her family and other African Americans in her community.
“I really enjoyed the documentary and it brought up so much emotion. In the radio reports they just mentioned desegregating the high school and how the presence of federal troops was a violation of States’ rights,” Buchanan said. “We never heard about Daisy Bates. It’s good to have that information and I would like to see it incorporated in history education.”
Brendan Smith grew up in Little Rock, AR and characterizes this period as an extremely embarrassing time for herself and community members that didn’t share the vitriolic reactions of those being broadcast on the nightly news.
“We traveled abroad about two years later, and in England if we told someone we were from Little Rock they would say, ‘Oh yes that’s where you had the war. We saw it on the TV.’ And then we would have to explain that not all Americans or Southerners were like the people they saw on television,” Smith said.
Smith adds that she didn’t expect to be one of the only people at the screening who had heard about Daisy Bates.
“I was surprised that no one has heard of Daisy Bates.” Smith said. “Maybe [I knew] because I grew up in Little Rock, but we also knew her name because we admired her.”
Smith’s mother was part of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC), which worked to re-open and integrate Little Rock’s public schools after the Governor of Arkansas closed all state schools to prevent further desegregation.
In 2008, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette ran this full-page commemoration of the WEC’s work. It quotes WEC leader Adolphine Fletcher Terry as declaring, “The men have failed. It’s time to call out the women.”