TV review: Forgotten history of civil rights pioneer revealed in PBS documentary

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Feb. 5 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

Daisy Bates was a civil rights pioneer whose contributions are now largely forgotten.

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville

As a devoted student of civil rights, Sharon La Cruise thought she knew all about the movement’s important events, from the Jim Crow laws of the 1890s to the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute and beyond.

But when she stumbled on the vast contributions made by Daisy Bates, the Southern-born filmmaker was shocked to discover that so little has been written about the outspoken pioneer and that her name is now largely forgotten.

While researching for this review, I was surprised to learn that Bates spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr. when he made his pivotal "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Yet Wikipedia doesn’t include information on her speech with King, on either the Daisy Bates page or the March of Washington entry.

As La Cruise encountered more fragments on Bates’ amazing life, she was spellbound. The result is the PBS documentary “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock,” premiering on KUED on Tuesday at 11 p.m. as part of the Independent Lens series.

“Daisy Bates” is La Cruise’s first solo documentary, and her inexperience shows. Yet a compelling portrait emerges of a striking figure who played a significant role in the integration of public schools and other civil rights initiatives.

Bates was a powerful writer for the Arkansas State Press, which her husband owned. The newspaper was a voice for civil rights before the national movement even began and publicized the state’s violations of the Supreme Court’s desegregation rulings.

So it was natural that when a group of nine students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine, attempted to enroll in an all-white high school that Bates was by their side. As head of the Arkansas NAACP, Bates played a lead role as a spokesperson of the integration efforts and became the students’ chief guide and adviser.

The program’s archival film clips and photo stills of the children calmly walking to the all-white school amid the ugly confrontations and death threats from an angry mob continue to shock and appall. Gov. Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard, not to aid the students but to support the segregationists.

The filmmaker was able to interview a few surviving Little Rock Nine students, who add their own remembrances, along with Bates’ family members and historians. Viewers learn that Bates later worked on anti-poverty campaigns in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Even after a debilitating stroke in 1965, Bates worked to improve others’ lives.

To bring Bates’ voice to the documentary, La Cruise has actress Angela Bassett provide voiceover readings from “The Long Shadow of Little Rock,” the memoir Bates wrote in 1988 that won a National Book Award. To hear Bates’ own words is a compelling component of the documentary, but the impact is diminished when these excerpts from Bates’ book are followed by La Cruise’s awkward personal musings.

The viewer has a hard time distinguishing when Bassett is speaking for Bates or when La Cruise is heard explaining her own discoveries of Bates’ life. The emphasis remains on the important life story of Daisy Bates, but there is a little too much Sharon La Cruise in “Daisy Bates.”

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