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Film shines light on protector of 'Little Rock Nine'

staff report • Mar 16, 2013 at 6:42 AM

In 1957, Daisy Bates became a household name when she fought for the right of nine black students to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., but her fame would prove fleeting.

East Tennessee State University’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts will present the documentary “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock” at 7 p.m., Monday, March 18 as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers.

After the free screening of the film in ETSU’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium, director and producer Sharon La Cruise and the audience will engage in a discussion about the film and her work as a filmmaker. A reception will follow. Both the film and reception are free and open to the public.

“Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock” tells the story of a seven-year journey by La Cruise to unravel the life of the forgotten civil rights activist. As head of the Arkansas NAACP and protector of the students known as the Little Rock Nine, Bates would achieve instant fame as the drama played out on national television and in newspapers around the world.

La Cruise’s documentary travels with Bates on her long and lonely walk from orphaned child to newspaperwoman to national figure to her last days in Little Rock.

“Some of us know about the courage of the nine students in Little Rock,” said Anita DeAngelis, director of the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. “Some of us learned about it when we were younger and some students may not know much about it. This is an important chapter during the Civil Rights movement, and Daisy Bates was right there in the middle of it as head of the Arkansas NAACP.

“I think we’ve forgotten how difficult their lives were, and it’s important for all of us to remember that.”

Bates was not born to make history, says the Independent Lens web site. The product of a segregated Arkansas sawmill town, she was black, illegitimate and self-taught after the eighth grade. Her biological mother had been raped, murdered and dumped into a local pond by white men, and Bates’ fearful father gave her away and never reclaimed her.

Throughout her life — even at the height of her acclaim — Bates would know loneliness and a feeling of being on the outside looking in. It was a feeling that drove her — in her career in the newspaper business and in her defense of the Little Rock Nine. Independent Lens calls Bates “a hero that was both black and female at a time when neither of those things accounted for much.”

“At a time when women were expected to be silent she was unafraid to speak the truth ... In a place where justice was enforced by fear, she would not compromise,” says the film’s narration.

Bates, who died in 1999, is presented in video and through her written words, read by Angela Bassett. The documentary also features a number of Bates’ contemporaries, including several of the Little Rock Nine, the students who enrolled at the high school but were initially blocked from entering by National Guard troops on the orders of the governor, Orval Faubus. Federal troops were eventually dispatched by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to escort them to the school doors.

Although the news coverage waned, the harassment didn’t stop at the school steps, says Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine. “Every day inside the school was hell, from beginning to end,” she says.

“Daisy Bates is the reason we need a Black History Month (and other ethnically-designated times of learning),” says a reviewer for The New York Times. “Daisy Bates was a moving force in American history, yet she wasn’t in any of my history books, and her name was never mentioned in my history classes.”

Filmmaker and journalist La Cruise has worked for Blackside Inc., Firelight Media, Roja Productions, The Faith Project, The Coca-Cola Co., the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and CNN. She has worked on: “Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, Shut up & Sing,” “Going Up River: The Long War of John Kerry,” “Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise,” “Citizen King,” “Matters of Race,” “This Far By Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys,” “The Life of Zora Neale Hurston” and CNN’s “Through the Lens, The Road to the White House” and “The Planetary Police.”

She works as an associate for the Ford Foundation in its JustFilms unit and is a member of the International Documentary Association. She holds a master’s degree in television journalism from New York University and a bachelor’s in history from Adelphi University.

The Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers is a program of South Arts. Southern Circuit screenings are funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.

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