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Protégé of Daisy Bates reflects on the Arkansas civil rights leader

Charles King, Janis Kearney, Mary Louise Williams and sculptor Benjamin Victor pose for a photo in front of the clay model of Daisy Bates on Tuesday.
Michael Hibblen
Charles King, Janis Kearney, Mary Louise Williams and sculptor Benjamin Victor pose for a photo in front of the clay model of Daisy Bates on April 26, 2022 in the UA Little Rock Windgate Center of Art + Design.

In the coming year, Arkansas is expected to unveil two new statues in Washington that will represent the state in the U.S. Capitol. In 2019, the Arkansas General Assembly approved replacing the state’s current statues, which are more than a century-old, with civil rights leader Daisy Bates and singer Johnny Cash.

In the years since, a committee formed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson has selected the sculptors to make the eight-foot statues. Benjamin Victor of Boise, Idaho created the clay model for the Bates statue, while Kevin Kresse of Little Rock has created one of Cash.

While the design of the Bates statue has been approved by the architect of the U.S. Capitol, officials are still waiting for required approval of the Cash statue before it can be cast in bronze. Shane Broadway, chairman of the National Statuary Hall Steering Committee, says a final packet of needed materials was submitted last week and everyone involved is hoping to hear back soon.

One person following the progress of the project is author Janis Kearney. She was mentored by Bates decades ago and eventually bought the Arkansas State Press, a newspaper geared toward the state’s African American residents which had been founded by Daisy and her husband L.C. Bates.

Kearney saw a full-size clay model of the statue earlier this year and met with the sculptor. She shared her thoughts, including how she felt Daisy Bates would feel about the honor, in an interview with KUAR News.

KUAR’s MICHAEL HIBBLEN: I saw you in April when Benjamin Victor invited the public to watch here on the UA Little Rock campus as he worked on the clay model of the Bates statue. First, what's been your impression watching this progress?

JANIS KEARNEY: I think, more than anything, I’ve been very proud of Arkansas that the choice was made, the decision was made, proud of the legislature taking what I think is kind of a bold move for Arkansas, but one that I think is so deserving. So, I've been very excited about this. I've been blessed to advise the committee, who's kind of making the plans and coordinating this whole effort, and just been so excited to see them all doing their best to make sure that Daisy Bates is front and center and that we all create something that we're proud of. That has been my goal when I go out and talk about Daisy Bates for the last 20 or 30 years, trying to move her into a place where I think she deserves for all the things that she has done for Arkansas.

And of course, Bates, among the many accomplishments she had in her life, was mentoring the nine Black students who desegregated Central High School in 1957. What do you think she would have thought, to know that she and Cash, two people who the state, back in the ‘50s or ‘60s, might have looked at sort of with contempt?

I think she'd be very, very surprised, but she'd be very pleased, and she was the kind of person who was very much nonjudgmental. So, I think she would have been happy to be paired with Johnny Cash. I think she would say, well, he stood up for what he believed and that's what I did. So, in some ways, even though they have different backgrounds, in some ways they're very much alike. So, I think she'd be very pleased.

Daisy Bates with supporters in Memphis in 1958. The statue that will represent Arkansas in the U.S. Capitol was largely based on this photo.
The Commercial Appeal
Daisy Bates with supporters in Memphis in 1958. The statue that will represent Arkansas in the U.S. Capitol was largely based on this photo.

Tell me some about your experiences with Mrs. Bates. Eventually you took over the Arkansas State Press, but you also spent a lot of time with her well before that.

I did. Actually, I like to tell people that I met Daisy Bates when I was 16 years old and my family were sharecroppers. And the first half of the summer I had chopped cotton with my family, the second half of the summer my dad actually offered to take me down to Daisy Bates’ office to work for her. She needed someone to work in her office. Unfortunately, I didn't pass her typing test, so I didn't get the job. But I never ever forgot her and, on that day, I decided I wanted to be as much like Daisy Bates as I could.

Never would I have dreamed that 20 years later I would see her again and meet her and actually apply for a job with her. So, I applied for the job. By that time, she had had several strokes and she wasn't able to speak very well and she was pretty much incapacitated as far as moving around. But those eyes, she talked through her eyes and her smile, so I could still communicate with her. And she stayed on – I actually purchased the newspaper in 1988, and she stayed on as my adviser and she taught me so much during that time. So, I learned so much. I consider her my mentor. I will always consider her my mentor and someone that I have admired from afar for a very long time.

And I have mentioned to you in the past, I met Daisy Bates one time in 1996 and attempted to interview her. It was at the state Capitol during the portrait unveiling ceremony, but I had not known that she had had a few strokes and had difficulty speaking. But what was it that made her so effective in bringing about change in Arkansas?

She never gave up. She never gave up no matter what, and she went through lots – she and her husband experienced so much – but she never gave up because she believed so strongly in equality and justice and education. She believed that the children deserved an equal education. So, she never gave up and she worked for it really really hard. And in my book, I talk about how I think that she and her husband suffered because of all they went through, but in the end, they could feel good that they worked so hard to make life better for children and for the state of Arkansas.

And it's amazing to see with some degree of regularity [the events] when the anniversary [of the desegregation of Central High] comes around every year, here most recently in September. And a couple of weeks ago, we had six of the [Little Rock Nine] in Newport News, Virginia where a submarine, they are the sponsors [with their initials being placed on the U.S. Navy’s USS Arkansas]. It's great to see them continuing to be honored and reminding people of the history so that new generations don't forget about this or not know about it.

Absolutely, and that's one of the things that she did. I recall that one of those anniversaries was during the time that I worked with her and she was so very proud of the Little Rock Nine – each one of them. She said, she was so proud to see that they were doing so well.

Anything else you would like to add?

Just that this statue is deserving of who she is. When I saw [the clay model], I was so excited because Ben Victor did such an excellent job of capturing who she is and I can't wait to see it in Washington DC and I hope people from Arkansas will find a way to get there to see.

An amazing site – eight feet tall.

Yes, and I always called her the size-five giant, so now she definitely is.

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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