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College class to delve into lives of Daisy Bates, Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash Daisy Bates
Library of Congress/ National Park Service
Johnny Cash outside his boyhood home in Dyess and Daisy Bates outside Central High School in Little Rock.

As a project nears completion for Arkansas to place statues of civil rights leader Daisy Bates and singer/songwriter Johnny Cash in the U.S. Capitol, a class in the upcoming semester will look at the lives of the two iconic figures. It will be taught by John Kirk, Ph.D, who is currently the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Kirk, who interviewed Bates in the early 1990s, says he wants the class to be timely and for students to appreciate what’s currently happening.

“We teach a seminar in Arkansas history, which is a rotating class almost every semester, but we change the topics to be contemporary and have a cutting edge,” Kirk said. “It seemed the perfect opportunity to focus on Daisy Bates and Johnny Cash, since those are two figures that have really been in the news in recent years.”

In 2019, at the urging of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the legislature agreed to replace the state’s current statues, which are more than a century-old, with eight-foot bronze statues of Bates and Cash. Each state has two statues on display, most in Statuary Hall, and Arkansas has been represented by likenesses of attorney Uriah Rose, founder of the Rose Law Firm, and former governor and U.S. Sen. James P. Clark.

Bates was the mentor for the nine Black students who desegregated Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 under an international media spotlight. Cash started his long, influential music career in 1955 at Sun Records in Memphis and would build a legion of loyal fans during the ups and downs in his life. Today travelers come to Arkansas from around the world to see the places associated with each.

“I think it's an important time to think about who they were as historical figures and to look more broadly and deeply at their legacy and see and ask students to think about exactly what it is that they represent about the state,” Kirk said.

While Bates and Cash were not directly associated, he says students will look at “how those lives overlapped and intertwined and how they unfolded at the times that they did.”

Bates grew up in the segregated south Arkansas sawmill town of Huttig. Cash was raised in the east Arkansas farming town of Dyess. Both experienced adversity and poverty as children before rising to international notoriety.

Kirk says Bates was committed to civil rights most of her life.

“We know about her role in the Little Rock school crisis,” he said. “I've written more about how she became head of the NAACP, which is quite controversial at the time when she was part of a young guard of people who were sort of pushing the civil rights agenda in the late 1940s and trying to move beyond a more conservative Black leadership.”

After the Central High desegregation, with Ernest Green becoming the first Black student to graduate from the school, Bates would move north to New York City, then Washington, DC. Kirk says she suffered a series of strokes and returned to Arkansas in bad health, but still managed to run a 1960s war on poverty project in the south Arkansas town of Mitchellville.

“She's quite ill after her strokes, but still committed to activism and local grassroots community activism down there and improving the lives of that predominantly Black community,” Kirk said. “What really impresses me is a lifelong commitment to Black activism, not just in the limelight, but also when she was out of the limelight, she… had that lifelong commitment.”

Cash would use his influence, especially after a resurgence of his career toward the end of the 1960s, to advocate on behalf of downtrodden people like prison inmates, Native Americans, or, as he put it in his 1971 song “Man in Black,” for “the poor and the beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.”

Being social activists might have made Bates and Cash seem unlikely choices to have been selected by the majority-Republican legislature to represent the state. Kirk says lawmakers likely realized their influence culturally, historically, as well as the benefits of tourism.

“Two relatively controversial figures in some ways,” he said. “I think they're both fantastic choices.”

In September, events were held marking the 65th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. The National Park Service operates a visitor’s center across from the school.

Arkansas State University restored Cash’s home a decade ago as part of its Arkansas Heritage Sites program. Since then, it has been expanding restoration projects to include parts of the town circle in Dyess, which was created as a New Deal colony during the Great Depression.

Kirk has written several books about race-related issues and the civil rights struggle, and says he plans to feature some of his research in the curriculum. The class will be taught at UA Little Rock’s Center for Arkansas History and Culture, which includes original research materials.

“We're going to mine their materials in the archives there. I hope we'll get a trip out to the Johnny Cash home [in Dyess] and the Daisy Bates home [in Little Rock] and use the material, culture and all those things,” Kirk said.

Students will begin the class by reading the memoirs written by each of the subjects. Bates published “The Long Shadow of Little Rock” in 1962, while “Cash: The Autobiography” was published in 1997.

The unveiling of the two statues is expected to take place in April or March. Gov. Hutchinson had said in 2019 that he hoped the ceremony would happen before he left office in January, but the design of each statue must be approved by the Architect of the U.S. Capitol, which has taken longer than hoped.

A committee overseeing the project selected sculptor Benjamin Victor of Boise, Idaho to make the Bates statue and sculptor Kevin Kresse of Little Rock to make the one of Bates. Kirk hopes the unveiling will take place before the end of the semester so that the class can watch the ceremony.

“You couldn’t have found two better people to be representative of the experience in Arkansas in the 20th century,” Kirk said. “I think students will have a fantastic time viewing Arkansas history through the prisms of their lives.”

As of Thursday, spaces were still available for undergraduate and graduate students to enroll in the class.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
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