PASSING THE TORCH: Daisy Bates (left) sits with Janis Kearney (right), Bates’ successor at the Arkansas State Press.

It was a wretchedly hot day when Daddy asked if I would like to spend the second half of my summer working as Daisy Bates’ clerk. He had painted Daisy as the Clara Barton of civil rights. The first surprise was that Daddy was offering me an out from chopping cotton the last half of the summer. The second surprise was that he knew Daisy Bates well enough to know she needed a summer clerk.  

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Meeting Daisy Bates in the summer of ’69 remains one of the most life-changing moments for the shy and impressionable young country girl who ended up at Bates’ office door. I froze when the tiny woman opened the door of the office/trailer home. I remember in perfect detail her simple but elegant dress and her thin face framed by short, jet black hair.  

Daisy Bates was even more beautiful than my father had painted her. There was kindness in her smile and amusement in her eyes as she stared at me standing in her doorway. Though I flunked her typing test that day, and lost my opportunity to work for her that summer, the 30-minute interaction changed my life forever. She became a goalpost for me. 

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It was 1987, 18 years later, before I’d meet Daisy Bates again. I learned she had revived the newspaper she’d lost in 1959 as a casualty of her war on segregation, and was now in need of a managing editor. What were the chances that I would graduate from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with a journalism degree, and end up running Daisy Bates’ newspaper?  

When I went to interview for the position, her speaking and mobility was greatly restricted by the many strokes she’d endured over the years. I was grateful to find that the fire was still there in her eyes, along with the humor at how the little country girl was still showing up at her door asking for a job.  

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I reminded her that I’d tried almost 20 years earlier to work for her but my typing was horrible. This time, however, she hired me. After six months of orientation into newspaper work, I was mortified to learn that she would be retiring and selling the newspaper. The miracle was that she ended up selling the newspaper to my husband and me. In 1988, I became Daisy Bates, or at least a passing semblance of who she’d once been. 

Sitting in the august Statuary Hall on May 8, 2024, I was remembering how that size-5 giant had impacted my life over and over again. How she’d made me see my possibilities, made me proud of being an African American woman, and an Arkansan. I was thinking of how she’d been hated with such vehemence because she dared to change the world and helped navigate that change through her guidance of the Little Rock Nine. She and her husband, LC, had sacrificed so much to make Arkansas and the country better, admonishing it to live up to its promise to ALL Americans.  

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Architect of the Capitol
A ‘SIZE-5 GIANT’: A statue of civil rights champion and journalist Daisy Bates was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol in May.

She surely would have been pleased as well as amazed that Arkansas and America’s leadership finally recognized her with such pomp and circumstance, and as something other than another Southern troublemaker (and a woman, to boot!) 

My travel to Washington, D.C., as part of the celebration of Daisy Bates’ placement in the U.S. Capitol will surely be one of my most memorable moments in life. I experienced a mixture of emotions, mostly excitement and pride, some bittersweet “what ifs.”  I was moved by the level of adulation for this woman I call mentor and friend, and by the diversity of the audience — especially the many Arkansans who were there to celebrate this day in history.  

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I was moved by the speeches by the slate of speakers at both the pre-unveiling reception May 7 and the celebration and unveiling of the Daisy Bates sculpture May 8. Yes, the speakers were majority white men, with one woman and one African American man. Each spoke admirably to Daisy Bates’ life and the good change she sought for the children of Arkansas. It was notable, however, that their glowing words stood in such stark contrast to the social, political and racial environment permeating our country today. 

I was proud of my ability to separate the vast political differences between myself and Gov. Sarah Sanders as I listened to her speak of her admiration of the very progressive Daisy Bates. The governor’s speech was one of the two most riveting of the day, as she shared stories and memories, like the 40th anniversary of the 1957 Central High Crisis when her father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, and President Clinton symbolically opened the doors to Central High School, allowing the middle-aged Little Rock Nine members to walk through the school doors. It was a powerful visual from the memory of a young white child who would eventually attend the historic Central High herself, and later become Arkansas’s 47th and first female governor. I was impressed not only by the governor’s eloquent speech but her ability to meld into and interact with the very diverse crowd afterward. Whoever said it got it right: Daisy Bates had a unique power of resolving differences and bringing people of different persuasions together.  

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And, then there was Charles King, President of the LC and Daisy Bates Foundation and Museum, who received a standing ovation for speaking truth to power, pointing out that in spite of the blurred remembrances of her, Daisy Bates’ very real fight for equal education for all children had not been in alignment with what America wanted for herself. May 8, King said, vindicated Daisy Bates’ struggle for right and her persistence to do the right thing for posterity. King’s message soared, then hit home with the audience because it came directly from the heart and because of his innate understanding of the struggle, the sacrifice and the courage demanded of Daisy Bates. 

I wondered, still, what would Daisy Bates think of all this. Would she feel vindicated that America and the world finally recognized that she had stood on the right side of morality and history in her fight against the harmful tradition of segregation and inequity? Would she nod in agreement with those who opined that March 8 and the placement of Bates’ sculpture in the U.S. Capitol proved that America and Arkansas had made adequate progress over the last six decades? Or would she, while grateful for the grand gesture, still believe that neither Arkansas nor America deserved a Kumbaya moment, just yet?

As I stared at the beautiful 7-foot bronze statue of Daisy Bates, captured so magnificently by the Iowa sculptor Ben Victor, my heart swelled, the tears flowed and my gratitude grew. Thank you, Daisy Bates, for all you did to make this miraculous day possible. Thank you, Arkansas, for adding this invaluable page to our state’s annals of history, and thank you, America, for showing that we can get it right, and that when we do, we all grow an inch or two taller.  

Janis F. Kearney is an author, writing coach and founder of Celebrate! Maya Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. She served as personal diarist to President Bill Clinton, was selected as a fellow at Harvard’s W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute, a fellow at DePaul University in Chicago, and as a visiting professor at Arkansas State University. In 2016, Janis was inducted into the Arkansas Writers Hall of Fame, and received the University of Arkansas Lemke Journalism award. 

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