Remembering 1960 civil rights victory in ‘Bates v. Little Rock’

Little Rock Nine and Daisy Bates

Little Rock Nine and Daisy Bates, ca. 1957-1960. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the NAACP Records)

Fifty-five years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that protected the free-association rights of the NAACP and a heroine of the civil rights movement, Daisy Bates.

In Bates v. City of Little Rock (1960), the Court ruled that Arkansas city officials could not use an occupational tax ordinance to force local leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to turn over membership lists.

Daisy Bates (1914-1999) was a civil rights leader best known for her instrumental role in leading the fight for integration for “the Little Rock Nine” – the nine black students who enrolled in the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957, that led to President Dwight D. Eisenhower calling out the U.S. National Guard after defiance from Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus and others.

During this time period, several states and cities sought to limit the civil rights activities of the NAACP. In NAACP v. Alabama (1958), the U.S. Supreme Court first spoke of the freedom of association – the right of the NAACP and its members to associate together and to be free from unwarranted harassment.

The Bates case was similar except that it involved application of an occupational tax ordinance. City officials required the local branches of the NAACP to reveal its membership and contribution lists under the pretense of checking its tax status. As The Washington Post reported, the ordinance “was generally regarded as an attempt to harass the NAACP which had sparked the school desegregation fight.”

Daisy Bates and Birdie Williams were the presidents and custodians of records for the NAACP branches in Little Rock and North Little Rock respectively. They refused to turn over the names on the grounds that city officials would harass those members.

A trial court found both Bates and Williams guilty and fined them. On appeal, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed their convictions. Bates and Williams then took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On February 23, 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed their convictions. Writing for the Court, Justice Potter Stewart emphasized that the First Amendment protected the right of individuals to freely associate together for expressive purposes. He explained that there was “no relevant correlation between the power of municipalities to impose occupational license taxes and the compulsory disclosure and publication of the membership lists of the local branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.”

Instead, Justice Stewart ruled that the city officials were using the tax ordinances to deter the free-association rights of the NAACP and its members. “The petitioners [Bates and Williams] cannot be punished for refusing to produce information which the municipalities could not constitutionally require,” he concluded.

David L. Hudson Jr. is the First Amendment Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute.

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