Sixteen years after the birth of the State Press, L. C. Bates found himself face to face with the giant that he’d unknowingly prepared for all along.
From the start, Bates used the State Press to fight against racial injustices and stir up the black community to demand the rights he believed they were granted by the Constitution. He didn’t address education consistently, but this would eventually become the focus of the paper in the coming years.
In 1947, Bates criticized Jim Crow laws, stating that they caused funds for black schools to be unequal. When the United States Supreme court ruled that separate but equal facilities were constitutional in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, Bates began to dig into the doctrine.
In a 1949 editorial he wrote:
Let’s Keep Them Squirming
“If there is a law making separate but equal schools, then let’s fight like hell to make the framers of the law enforce it.”
He ended the editorial by stating “the only way to equalize good education in the South is through integration.”
In other articles, Bates wrote about how the doctrine caused blacks in Arkansas to be bussed miles away from their homes to all-black schools when there were schools in their towns. Several instances like this were brought to Bates’ attention and in 1952, he called out the Little Rock School Board for waiving an anti-segregation clause in a contract to build a new school. He also called out the Little Rock City Council for failing to realize how costly segregation was when the city was short on money. He wrote:
“The City Council is much concerned over the recent demands made upon the City for more money. The Council is busily engaged in trying to work out some form of increase in taxation to meet these demands. It is finding out that keeping city employees is costly. The council is overlooking the most costly item of all and that is segregation. Segregation is a MUST for it is the only luxury some white people can enjoy –at the expense of others.”
The integration issue seemed to come to Bates at just the right time because he was no longer addressing a local issue, but one of national concern.
Brown v. Board of Education
In June of 1953, the United States Supreme Court delayed the decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the Court would decide whether it would deem separate public schools for blacks and whites unconstitutional. Upon postponement of the decision, Bates urged his readers not to let the passing time “dampen the spirit of the Negro,” but to instead realize that the Court was giving them an opportunity to “lay its plans” for integration so the “real decision” would not be “too shocking.”
On May 17, 1954, the Court ruled that separate public schools were unconstitutional, and Bates quickly outlined what he felt the next steps were for the black community to take:
“We feel that the proper approach would be for the leaders among the Negro race –leaders, not clabber mouths, Uncle Toms, or grinning appeasers –to get together and counsel with the school heads and try to get relief from the school ills. This might work in some instances. If it does, it will save time, money and a lot of emotionalism. Let the school officials understand that we are going to get a square deal in education. We want it peaceably if possible.”
Fighting for democracy
Bates took his own advice and counseled with school board and other community members, including those who were opposed to his point of view. Following a meeting with the North Little Rock School Board, Bates and Fines C. Phillips, president of the Capital City Chapter of White America, Inc., a white segregationist organization, met to counsel with one another. The Arkansas Gazette published its account of the conversation:
The Negro newspaperman talked quietly to Phillips while he explained how he felt about the Board’s decision to begin racial integration within two years at the high school level. Phillips puffed on his pipe and listened.
“How long is it going to take for democracy to start to work?” Bates asked. “How long has it been since 1776?”
Phillips took his pipe out of his mouth. ”We’ve spent thousands of dollars here to build good schools for you people,” he said.
“Schools for us?” the editor asked. “Why aren’t they OUR schools. I had a boy in the Army and what was he fighting for? Democracy? OUR democracy? The democracy that he knew? You know what did make me hot under the collar?” Bates said, shaking his pencil in the direction of Phillips’ pipe. “Let me tell you what I say,” he told Phillips. “During the war, they marched some 16 German prisoners through here. Four military police were escorting them to Jerome, and they stopped at Franke’s restaurant over in Little Rock to eat a meal. Those 16 German prisoners, who had been trying to destroy everything that our democracy stands for, and two of the MP’s went into the restaurant and ate in an air-conditioned room. The other two MP’s were sent around to the kitchen to eat. They were colored.”
Phillips puffed on his pipe. The Negro editor waited for a reply.
“But you know,” Phillips said, “You folks are trying to get out of paying poll taxes.” Thus ended a brief discussion of democracy.”
In 1955, the Little Rock School Board decided that integration would not begin in its public schools for another two years to give the public time to adjust to the new concept. During those two years, Bates backed off of integration issues slightly in his editorials, but he kept his readers informed of the integration progress.
Little Rock Central High School crisis
In the fall of 1957, a date was set for the integration of Central High School, but the decision was met with resistance and organizations were established to oppose it, including the White Citizen’s Council and White America Inc.
Nine black students had already been selected to attend the school at this point: Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals.
Segregationist organizations threatened to hold protests and block the children’s entrance into Central High School. Their opposition caused an uproar in the city and public officials were forced to address the issue. Governor Orval E. Faubus called on the National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school, stating that there was ”imminent danger of tumult, riot and breach of the peace and the doing of violence to persons and property.”
His decision made national headlines and the events following polarized the nation.