The Roles of Daisy Bates and Barbara Johns
December 15, 2008
School integration has influenced the environment in which schools operate today. After decades of struggle and conflict, African Americans could not attend the same schools as whites until the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was made in 1954. In this critical decision, the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional and ordered schools to desegregate. However, desegregation did not come immediately for blacks as many school systems throughout the United States, including Little Rock, Arkansas and PrinceEdwardCounty, Virginia, worked hard to prevent integration. Furthermore, throughout the integration movement and after, historians discussed the various roles people played in these movements. However, like much of the Civil Rights Movement, women have frequently been left out of the narrative, including Daisy Bates and Barbara Johns, who were both involved in the desegregation of schools in their towns. Because of this, it is important to recognize the role they played in this movement as well as the impact they have made on history.
Daisy Lee GastonBates was born on November 11, 1914 in Huttig, Arkansas. It is unclear who her biological parents were, but she only lived with them a few years before her mother was raped and killed by three white men and her father left her in the care of neighbors, Orlee and Susie Smith. Her mother’s killers were never charged with the crime and Bates was emotionally impacted when she eventually heard about her mother’s death. According to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, her “sense of injustice sustained her through a lifetime of struggle for civil rights for Black Americans.” In an interview with Elizabeth Jacoway in 1976, Bates also credits her anger over her mother’s death for her preparation as a leader in the Little Rock crisis.
Bates grew up under the Jim Crow laws in Huttig where blacks and whites knew their place in society. As Grif Stockley states in his book, it was a “strict step-by-step racial etiquette choreographed by whites first during slavery and then through decades of formal and informal domination.” Like most of the south, Arkansas was not immune to the racial violence of the early 1900s and neither was Bates. For example, in an incident she recalls in her memoir, she was humiliated at the meat market when the butcher yelled at her using words like “nigger” for being impatient. Bates also experienced segregated schools when she was growing up, though it is unclear how much education she received. According to Stockley, she probably only attended school until the sixth or eighth grade, like most black children. However, she did tell Jacoway in the 1976 interview that she had completed high school and attended ShorterBusinessCollege after she was married.
Then, when she was fifteen, Bates met her future husband, L.C. Bates, who was an insurance salesman and frequent visitor to her home. L.C. Bates came from a privileged background and was more educated than Daisy. In fact, his father was a farm manager for a white widow, who helped pay for him to attend a private grammar school. He later attended WilberforceCollege, but dropped out after a year to pursue a career as a newspaper journalist. He then became an insurance salesman after a few years. Even though L.C. Bates was twelve years older than Daisy, they finally married after several years in 1942 and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. Once in Little Rock, Daisy and L.C. Bates began production of their newspaper, the Arkansas State Press. As mentioned in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the Arkansas State Press was a “weekly newspaper which quickly became a potent voice for civil rights that reported on acts of violence against blacks throughout the south.”
Barbara Rose Johns, on the other hand, was born much later than Bates in 1935 in New York City. Also, unlike Bates, Johns lived with her biological parents, Robert and Violet Johns, and the family moved around from the city to the country and eventually to Washington, D.C. in 1942. There, her mother worked for the government and her father joined the army. After about a year in Washington, Johns was sent to live with her grandparents on a tobacco farm in the town of Farmville in PrinceEdwardCounty, Virginia with her brothers and sisters. There, she began her education in a one-room public school called Public School 14. In his book, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, Richard Wormser discusses how Johns “helped care for and pick tobacco in her free time and worked in the country store owned by her uncle, Vernon Johns.” 
Furthermore, in contrast to Bates, Johns had little experience with racism when she was a little girl. According to R.C. Smith, Johns felt sheltered from the racism in the South when she was growing up and can not recall any personal experiences from this time. Johns does remember, though,sneaking out of her room at night with her siblings to hear stories about slavery from her relatives. As she recalls in Smith’s book, They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951-1964, “you could hear stories about slavery and about the way Negros were living in the old days. I don’t know about whether any of this was real experience for them or what, and I know none of them actually had been slaves of course…But I remember stories...” In fact, Johns remembers how her father, once he and her mother moved to Farmville in 1945, had good relations with the white farmers in the area, though, she does say that they were all poor, which may have contributed to this. It was only when she was older and began helping at the country store that Johns remembers seeing the difference between blacks and whites. However, she still had pride in herself. For example, she recalls one particular occasion when she went to a “five- and ten-cent store” in Farmville and the white salesgirl could not total the order. Johns says she “got a greater kick from taking each item and counting them correctly out for her and seeing her face turn a crimson red.”
Johns also came from a strong family and her leadership in the MotonHigh School student strike is credited to the influence of her uncle, Vernon Johns, and both her grandmothers. One of her grandmothers, Mary Corner, would tell stories about lynchings and violence toward black people. She also believed in the need for strong leadership among blacks to help gain their rights. Both Corner and Johns’s other grandmother, Sally Johns, also influenced Johns by showing her how not to fear whites. Wormser even discusses how Johns herself would stand up to white people by questioning why they called her father “uncle” or her mother “auntie” when they were not their uncle or aunt. Furthermore, her uncle, Vernon Johns, a well-known minister in Farmville, encouraged her to explore her passions and she became an avid reader and writer. She got many books from his library and even read Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery”
Johns’s life, however, changed when she entered R.R. Moton High School. It was there she became more aware of the difference between blacks and whites and how the white school had better facilities than her school. As stated in Wormser’s book, Johns remembers constantly thinking how unfair it was. She talks about how she “kept thinking about it all the way home. I thought about it a lot when I was in bed and I was still thinking about it the next day.” Once at MotonHigh School, Johns got involved in the drama guild, New Homemakers of America, the chorus, and was elected to student council. As a member of the student council, Johns traveled throughout Virginia where she quickly realized the difference between her school and the ones she visited. These experiences would later become critical in her role in the MotonHigh School student strike.
As for Bates’s early years of marriage, she was never really involved in writing any of the stories for the Arkansas State Press until 1946. That March, her husband left her in charge of the newspaper when he departed for a trip. During this time, she covered a story on a strike by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) on the Southern Cotton Oil Mill, in which a striker was killed, but the protesters were charged for violation of Arkansas’s right-to-work law. Bates emphasized the discrimination that took place in the case and this story ultimately made the Arkansas State Press well known in the community as Bates and her husband gained access to both black and white communities. In her interview with Jacoway, Bates also discusses how she immediately got involved locally in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when she moved to Little Rock. Still, though, Bates had not yet received national attention.
However, in 1952, she became the President of the State Conference of Branches forArkansas’s NAACP. She also served on the board of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations where she was able to freely interact with whites. At this time, Bates describes in Jacoway’s interview how the NAACP focused on everything that had to do with desegregation, including schools, bathrooms, and water fountains, though Bates focused on the children. However, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. It was after this decision that Bates says the NAACP began to focus more on education. In fact, according to Elizabeth Jacoway in her book, Turn Away They Son: Little Rock, the Crisis that Shocked the Nation, it was “under Bates’s leadership” that the NAACP in Arkansas pushed for “immediate integration” after the Brown decision and “the group waited patiently, though not meekly or silently, for over a year for the Little Rock School Board to formalize its plans before filing its lawsuit in February 1956.”
Nevertheless, three years after the Brown decision, Little Rock and the rest of Arkansas still had not achieved desegregation. Moreover, Little Rock’s school superintendent, Virgil T. Blossom, devised a plan, which later became known as the “Blossom Plan,” that involved very little integration. Both Bates and her husband opposed this plan, saying that it was clearly trying to delay integration. Even after Blossom modified his plan after the second Brown decision, Little Rock schools remained segregated.
Because of this, Bates and the NAACP decided to take action and Bates “quickly assumed a leadership position as the coordinator of the group and the liaison between school officials and the black children.” In August 1957, nine students, who would become known as the “Little Rock Nine,” met for the first time. In his book, Redefining the Color Line, John A. Kirk describes the nine students as “strong-willed and fiercely independent,” who all lived closer to CentralHigh School than HoraceMannHigh School, which at the time was mostly black. Furthermore, these nine students were set to enter CentralHigh School on September 3, but the evening before, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus issued a statement saying the National Guard was prepared to maintain order at the school. He made it clear that the soldiers were not there to prevent segregation, nor continue it; they were simply responsible for protecting the citizens. At the end of the speech, Faubus said, “it will not be possible to restore or maintain order and protect the lives and property of the citizens if forcible integration is carried out tomorrow.” The school board, then, issued their own statement telling the black students not to try and enter CentralHigh School the next morning.
However, this did not stop Bates and the “Little Rock Nine.” The next day, white students began their first day of school and Blossom held a meeting with the nine students and their parents. Originally, Bates was not invited, but attended upon the request of the parents. At this meeting, Blossom discussed how no one should try to accompany the students to school the next morning. However, as a precaution, Bates decided to organize a group of black and white ministers to help escort the nine students to CentralHigh School. Unfortunately, only a few ministers, including Dunbar Ogden Jr., Bates’s first contact, agreed to meet her the next morning a few blocks from the school. Then, late that night, Bates contacted the police, who cautiously agreed to escort the group, as well as the parents of eight of the nine students.
On the morning of September 4, Bates and her husband set out to meet the students. She had planned to arrange the students with ministers in the front, and in the back. However, one of the students, Elizabeth Eckford, arrived at the school unescorted because she had not been contacted the night before since her family did not own a telephone. Despite hearing this on the radio, Bates and the other eight students proceeded toward the school. When they arrived, though, guardsmen refused to let them enter the school. The group of students, ministers, and Bates decided to leave the school and attempted to go to Blossom’s office, only to find him gone. Eventually, they contacted United States Attorney, Osro Cobbs, who referred them to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to give statements on what occurred that day.
Nonetheless, Bates persisted and arranged tutors for the nine students from September 4 until September 23, when they were not in school. She continually talked to the media about the events to spread awareness. She even arranged for Thurgood Marshall to stay at her house when he came to speak to the Little Rock School Board on September 8-9, and she often minimized the idea of violence against her. In addition,a court hearing was also scheduled for September 20, where Governor Faubus was ordered to remove the National Guard from CentralHigh School. After the hearing, Bates and the students arranged another attempt to enter the school on September 23. Bates tried to get federal protection for the students because the National Guard was no longer there to protect them from the mob. However, no help would come, and Bates did not want to send the students back to school unless they had protection. This fear for safety is revealed in her memoir when several ministers offered to pray for her. Responding to them, she says, “I don’t need a prayer. If you are really interested in doing something to help, go visit the homes of the nine children-pray with them-they are the ones who will have to face the mob.”
The mediaalso continued to run stories nationwide about what was happening in Little Rock, whichbecome known as the “Little Rock Crisis.” This is evident from a Los Angeles Times story that ran on September 24, the day after the students were able to gain entrance to the school. In this article, “Battling Crowd Drives Students from School,” the paper describes how “nine negro students got inside for more than three hours but were withdrawn in the face of rioting.” Furthermore, this article describes the chaos and violence that occurred at CentralHigh School that day, including attacks on other black students at a neighboring school. The article also discusses how Superintendent Blossom and Assistant Police Chief Gene Smith decided to remove the nine black students because of the violence. In addition, Bates is quoted in this article saying, “The children will not return to CentralHigh School until they have the assurance of the President of the United States that they will have protection against the mob.”
Ultimately, President Eisenhower issued a proclamation on September 24, which ordered Arkansas to stop interfering with the court orders to integrate schools. It also sent one thousand troops from the 101st Airborne Division to ensure that the orders were carried out. Finally, on the morning of September 25, the nine students were escorted to CentralHigh Schoolby federal troops. Even though the students continued to receive threats and federal escorts remained necessary, September 25, 1957 was a milestone for Bates and the school integration movement both in Arkansas and nationwide.
Johns, however, was a student rather than an outside leader, who was involved in her community’s push for integration. Even before the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Johns and other students recognized that MotonHigh School was overcrowded, lacked adequate heat, and had few resources available to students. There were also very few buses available for students to go to school, which often made the commute more than an hour. The school district had even built temporary structures, which became known as “tarpaper shacks” to help alleviate the overcrowding. These structures were poorly made and the roofs often leaked. As Kara Miles Turner describes in her article, “’Getting It Straight’: Southern Black School Patrons and the Struggle for Equal Education in the Pre- and Post-Civil Rights Eras,” “these shacks were a daily reminder of just how low a priority the White county leadership placed on Black education.” Furthermore, blacks had been trying for years to obtain better conditions for their schools, but the school board always put them off.