Black History Month: PBS lights up forgotten dramas

Daisy Bates in Memphis, 1958. Courtesy of The Commercial Appeal.Bored by Black History Month?
Remind you of high school homework assignments?
You’re thinking: It’s just about saints whose stories we already know by heart?
Well, sorry, you’re wrong. Thank goodness a lot of creative people are shining spotlights on forgotten chapters of black history that are packed with drama and suspense. These new stories can be heart breaking, but they’re also downright inspiring. The history we should have known years ago finally is being written—and filmed. At ReadTheSpirit, we’ve published Blessed Are the Peacemakers, a book that includes inspiring profiles of black activists we’re sure you haven’t discovered until now.
All this month, PBS is bringing Americans three provocative documentaries, which we will tell you about week after week. Stay tuned!

UPDATE ON FUTURE SHOWINGS: Daisy Bates was shown nationally on many PBS stations on Feb 2.
Check out upcoming PBS Black History Month specials on this Independent Lens webpage.
Plus, many local stations are repeating Daisy Bates over the coming week: Check out regional listings.

Debuting on PBS, February 2, 2012:
‘Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock’

The National Park Service’s offiicial historical site for Little Rock Central High School, and the supporting pages for educators, never even mention Daisy Bates. Click this image, above, to visit the NPS portal page to this historic site.We are not alone in praising the PBS lineup. The New York Daily News describes the debut film on Daisy Bates this way: “Powerful show on a woman who was both an integrationist and a feminist in a town that was highly suspicious of both in the 1950s.” In San Francisco, the SF Weekly says that filmmaker Sharon La Cruise “uncovers a personality as complex as the era.” And, if you’ve already decided to tune in:
Here’s the PBS webpage for the film that lets you check airtimes on your local PBS affiliate.

“In 1957, Little Rock a became the battleground for one of the most notorious school desgregation fights in America. At its center stood one woman: Daisy Bates.” So opens the hour-long film by journalist and documentary filmmaker Sharon La Cruise. First, we go way back to Bates’ tragic childhood as the daughter of a woman who was beaten, raped and murdered by several white men who were never charged with the brutal killing.

Eventually, though, we reach the 1950s when Daisy becomes a journalist herself and competes to become the head of the Arkansas NAACP. How did a woman reach such a top post in an era of sexism as well as racism? The film explains her political savvy. Her ascent to statewide office in the NAACP was a feminist milestone. One of the film’s narrators explains: “Most women in the civil rights movement … were usually assistants to men. Rosa Parks was a secretary in the NAACP. … But, here is Daisy Bates not being an assistant, but being the leader—and it was revolutionary in many ways.”

Violent racist groups targeted Little Rock in the mid 1950s. Daisy Bates marched into school offices and demanded integration. The whole matter wound up in court. Eventually, as you will discover, Bates forced the issue and changed American history.

Here is the dramatic backdrop to this film and the reason we all should watch it: Like so many other major figures in the civil rights movement—and especially like so many women who played catalytic roles—Daisy Bates is all but invisible in our official histories. ABOVE, today, you’ll see the far more famous imagery of the 1957 confrontation that integrated Central High School in Little Rock. Click on that image, above, and visit the National Park Service historical site. Dig deep. Look at the various civil rights overviews linked by NPS. Read the supplemental materials for educators. You will find Elizabeth Eckford (shown in the photo above carrying her book), and the other teens who became known as the famous Little Rock Nine.
But Daisy Bates? She’s invisible to this day.

The truth is: The Nine would never have made history without Bates’ courage and tireless activism. In this film, Bates finally is made visible to us. And, she doesn’t come across as a two-dimensional saint. She comes across as an articulate, brave, courageous woman—and a woman deeply scarred by racism in the South throughout her life. We see her talking to reporters in vintage footage with tape strapped across the windows in her home so that rocks wouldn’t send lethal shards across her living room.

This is a full-fleshed profile of a complex woman. We should learn about her life. But, more than the “should” in this case—Bates’ story is every bit as exciting as the fictional women we’ve all discovered in the hit novel and movie The Help. Tune in!

COMING LATER THIS MONTH: Two more compelling films in this series air February 9 and 16. Stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit for more on those documentaries.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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