UNVEILING: Second Baptist Church of Little Rock hosted a simulcast event for the unveiling of the Daisy Bates statue in the nation's capitol. Brian Chilson

Whether it’s the Parthenon or the Pyramids, we’ve always judged a culture’s values by its monuments. Today, a statue of civil rights visionary and newspaper publisher Daisy Lee Gatson Bates was unveiled at Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., where each state in the country is represented by two statues honoring esteemed natives.

Importantly, the statue of Bates — along with one of musician Johnny Cash, to be unveiled this fall — replace monuments to a former Arkansas senator, James P. Clarke (1854-1916), a vocal and powerful white supremacist who ran his 1894 election on the platform of preserving “the white standards of civilization”; and Uriah Milton Rose (1834-1913), a prominent Little Rock lawyer who was conscripted to keep records for Arkansas’s Confederate Army during the Civil War.

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Bates was raised in Union County by foster parents, and moved to Little Rock with her husband, L.C. Bates, in 1941 to launch the Arkansas State Press, the largest African American statewide newspaper in Arkansas, and a vital advocate in the push for racial equity in the state. Later, Bates became the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP and a mentor and champion to the Little Rock Nine during the battle to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Throughout her career, Bates and her husband defended the newspaper against boycotts from white business owners, and had to defend their home from threat of attack, even as it doubled as a safe place at which the Little Rock Nine could prepare for school and retreat to once school was dismissed. The Bates house at 1207 W. 28th St. is now a museum to Bates’ legacy. A snapshot of what Bates faced during those years is excerpted in her entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: 

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“The case was filed for the purpose of enforcing the rights of black children in Little Rock to attend schools with whites in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Questioned by Leon Catlett, an attorney for the Little Rock school board, Bates refused to allow herself to be called by her first name. She told the attorney, “You addressed me several times this morning by my first name. That is something that is reserved for my intimate friends and my husband. You will refrain from calling me Daisy.” Without hesitating, Catlett shot back, “I won’t call you anything then,” to which Bates responded, “That’s fine.” This challenge to one of white supremacy’s oldest traditions — that of controlling and intimidating African Americans by treating them as though they were children — became part of the front-page story in the next morning’s Arkansas Gazette.”

While an audience amassed in the nation’s Capitol to witness the reveal of sculptor Benjamin Victor’s tribute to Bates, a crowd of around 100 people also gathered in the church pews at Second Baptist Church on John Barrow Road in Little Rock, where a simulcast of the unveiling was being screened. Inside the sanctuary of the large church campus, Cynthia Erivo’s “Stand Up” (from the 2019 film “Harriet”) played as illuminated banners and digital screens displayed Bates’ face. (The church’s origins date back to 1957, the same year Bates was mentoring the Little Rock Nine as they integrated Central High.)

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Mary Hardin of the Daisy Bates Foundation introduced the ceremony, calling Bates “a lady who endured many hardships, threats, rocks thrown in her yard,” which she endured with “dignity and stamina.” As Hardin invoked civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer and even Moses into her speech, the audience at Second Baptist became a sort of congregation, punctuating Hardin’s statements with an “Alright!” or an “Amen!”

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Bates, Hardin said, “heard her assignment. … She knew that if hearts were changed, the mind will follow.”

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Darren Brkic, a representative from the sponsoring organization, a timber company called West Fraser, drew similar affirmations as he said, “Our future generations need to learn and understand what happened in our history.” He didn’t elaborate, but you didn’t need to be a 1619 Project scholar to hear it in a political context, whether or not he intended it. Teaching stories like Bates’ to those future generations is more fraught as AP African American Studies programs across the state have come under fire from right-wing voices.

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ROTC: The Little Rock Central High School’s Presentation of Colors at today’s unveiling ceremony.

A presentation with audio from Dr. Patricia Evans Newby — who initially attempted to enroll in Central High School, was denied entrance and later became a superintendent at the Grand Rapids public school system in Michigan — played over the PA, with Newby extolling Bates’ poise and determination. “I would hope every American knows that Mrs. Bates set forth when others would not. … Everyone should recognize that it’s possible for us to overcome [discriminatory laws] and all you have to do is to look forward and not look back.” 

Meanwhile, as Central High students with clear backpacks shuttled themselves between classes, a number of them wandered into the media center, where Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, was there to watch the YouTube livestream of the unveiling ceremony. Central High Principal Nancy Rousseau buzzed around up front, quizzing the students on Central’s connections to the other statue, noting that Central High was connected to it as well; Cash sculptor Kevin Kresse’s son Roman graduated from Central last year.

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Stephanie Smittle
CELEBRATING DAISY BATES AT CENTRAL: (from left) Central High educator Ruthie Walls, Central High principal Nancy Rousseau, Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine and other educators

“You cannot walk through these hallways without knowing the impact Mrs. Bates had on making Little Rock Central a historic place,” Rex Deloney, chair of the Central High Art Department, said. 

Some of the students who filed into the library Wednesday afternoon were more clued in than others. “What are we watching?” one student asked another. It took a minute for the audio on the livestream to kick in, but that’s no problem for an educator; Rousseau narrated the kids through the ceremony’s prelude: “We’ve got lots of people from Little Rock there today!”

Stephanie Smittle

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Central students applauded when House Speaker Mike Johnson said in his opening remarks that such monuments “teach us about where we were, where we are and where we are going as people. We’ve had Washington at Mount Vernon, Lincoln at Gettysburg. And starting today, we have Daisy Bates in Little Rock.”

A giggle erupted during the national anthem when the closed caption subtitles on the TV screen translated “o’er the ramparts” as “o’er the hair parts,” then a wave of whispers as students admonished each other for sitting down before the color guard had departed Statuary Hall.

A lone student clapped a couple of times when Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was called to speak, but stopped when they realized nobody else was clapping. (Central High students’ political opinions are undoubtedly diverse, but still. The kids know what’s up.) No worries, though, Sanders got her applause from the Central High kids when she lauded the importance of two prominent Arkansas HBCUs in the state — Philander Smith and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Sanders counted herself as “a graduate of the same school that Daisy Bates helped desegregate.” In the middle of all the forward civil momentum, Sanders said, “was Daisy.” (Guess Sanders didn’t get that “Don’t call me Daisy” memo.)

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Brian Chilson
AT THE U.S. CAPITOL: Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks in praise of Daisy Bates at the statue unveiling ceremony.

“Daisy Bates’ home was vandalized repeatedly,” Sanders said. “Bates herself was arrested. Most of us would have chosen anger and bitterness and likely even called for retaliation. … There was a fire inside this woman, but she did not use it to burn our state down. Instead, she used it to bring light to our darkest corners.”

Met with some sideways glances from students in attendance, Sanders invoked the Holocaust as analogy, recalling her own visit to Jerusalem as a an 11-year-old and extolling Bates as someone who “was willing to take on the fight because it was right.” (There is, um … how shall we say? A lot to unpack there.) 

Rep. French Hill sidestepped some systemic-racism-sized elephants in the room in favor of more general praise of Bates’ legacy, saying, “She was the best that we have to offer.” About halfway through his remarks, the students began to shuffle out of the library, not in protest but because the next class was about to begin.

Rep. Bruce Westerman took the lectern and dove headlong into Bates’ violent childhood – her mother raped, murdered and thrown in a pond at the hands of white men – striking a refrain about Bates’ fortitude that the following speakers would return to again and again. “What a remarkable story the state of Arkansas has chosen to tell.”

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‘I, TOO’: Charles King of the Daisy Bates Foundation.

There was an especially awkward moment when, finally, Charles King — President of the Daisy Bates House Museum Foundation Board and the speaker with the most direct ties to Bates — was announced to speak next, only to be followed with a correction: It was Sen. Tom Cotton’s turn to talk. 

Eckford, hands in her lap in the front row next to Rousseau, clapped for Cotton and King alike, nodding occasionally as a bit of history surfaced in a dignitary’s speech. Using Langston Hughes’ “I, Too” as a poetic cornerstone, King artfully threaded the needle between Statuary Hall diplomacy and plain old truth, pointing out that “singing America” can sound quite different, depending on who the singer is.

Stephanie Smittle

“Daisy Bates,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said, “was not playing games. When a group of racist white men rammed the back of her station wagon, he said, “Mrs. Bates — politely — took out her pistol. The men took off.” 

Alumni of Philander Smith University and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff performed “Guide My Feet,” a deep-seated gospel solo arranged by Stephen L. Hayes to be delivered against a low, steady thrum of vocal percussion from the bass section: “Guide my feet while I run this race.”

Stephanie Smittle
‘WHILE I RUN THIS RACE’: Elizabeth Eckford watched the unveiling ceremony for the Daisy Bates statue in Washington, D.C.

Speaking to the Arkansas Times at Central High following the unveiling, AP African-American Studies teacher (and cousin-by-marriage to Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of the Little Rock Nine) Ruthie Walls said, “We honor her here in Arkansas and have for years, but now we get to share her with the nation. She is a hero. The bravery and courage that she showed during the civil rights moment to the time she helped the Little Rock Nine integrate Central to the day that she took her last breath, she was a role model.”

The statue switch-out came at the behest of a 2019 bill signed into law by former Gov. Asa Hutchinson. “I remember giving tours to constituents from Arkansas, to young people,” Hutchinson said in an interview, “and I would point out the two representatives in Statuary Hall in our United States Capitol from Arkansas, and they would say, ‘We’ve never heard of them.’”