Daisy Bates et al. v. City of Little Rock

aka: Bates v. City of Little Rock

Daisy Bates et al. v. City of Little Rock, 361 U.S. 516 (1960) was a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a number of the state’s local ordinances that had been enacted in an effort to harass and hamper the efforts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civil rights advocates. It was one of a series of cases that arose when the region’s local white power structure—seeking to fight back against the federal court decisions and black activist–sponsored direct action that threatened to bring an end to the South’s longtime legally mandated Jim Crow practices—undertook harassment campaigns against the civil rights leaders.

In Little Rock (Pulaski County), this harassment took the form of an occupational tax, a measure enacted in October 1957 and ostensibly aimed at a group of nonprofits that city leaders claimed were in fact businesses that sought to avoid taxes by assuming the nonprofit label. To ferret out the alleged fraud, an ordinance required the nonprofits, among other things, to disclose the names of their members as well the sources of their dues.

When it came time for the law to be enforced, Daisy Bates (a longtime activist and a veteran of the effort to desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School) and her colleagues, each a keeper of the records of one of the various NAACP chapters, refused to comply fully. While it was not difficult to comply with some parts of the ordinance, Bates and her fellow officials were adamant in their refusal to produce membership lists or dues records. After refusing to comply, Bates and others were tried, convicted, and ordered to pay a $25 fine each. At the Bates trial, as well as at most of the others, lawyers for the NAACP introduced evidence that made clear that the city’s efforts had led to a reduction in membership renewals out of fear of harassment and municipal reprisals. Attorneys also offered evidence of harassment that had already occurred.

Following their convictions, Bates and others appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, where, by a 5–2 vote, with Justices George Rose Smith and J. Seaborn Holt dissenting, the convictions were upheld. Bates and company next appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the cases. There, they were represented by an NAACP legal team that included Robert L. Carter, one of the attorneys who had argued the federal desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education, as well as George Howard Jr., who would go on to become the first African-American attorney in Arkansas to be appointed to a federal court.

The case was argued on November 18, 1959, and a unanimous Court issued its opinion on February 23, 1960. With Justice Potter Stewart writing for the Court, the justices made clear that the Little Rock ordinances served as a significant barrier to the members of the NAACP who sought to engage in their constitutionally protected right to associate with and share their ideas with their fellow members. The Court also stated that it was “beyond dispute” that the right was protected from invasion by the states by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Stewart observed 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 [NAACP].” In addition, he rebuked the city’s efforts, asserting that what the city was doing was harassment and was intended to infringe upon the right of free association. In the end, Stewart declared, Bates and her fellow officials “cannot be punished for refusing to produce information which the municipalities could not constitutionally require.”

Politically, reaction in Little Rock to the Court’s ruling was mixed. The city board of directors had a regularly scheduled meeting only hours after the ruling was handed down, but there is no evidence in the minutes of the evening’s meeting that the issue was even discussed. Similarly, neither of Little Rock’s newspapers, the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat, reported any reaction from city officials. State Attorney General Bruce Bennett, who was the author of the laws—they were known as Bennett laws in the many cities across the state that had adopted them—and who was preparing an electoral challenge to Governor Orval Faubus, was outraged and promised to “deintegrate” (his newly coined word) the state if elected. Meanwhile, Faubus expressed his concern that the ruling would allow Communists to contribute to the NAACP. In the end, the Court’s decision in Bates v. Little Rock, like its earlier ruling in NAACP v. Alabama 357 U.S. 449 (1958), wiped away yet another roadblock on the national journey to racial equality while also offering another example of individual citizens’ actions fueling the movement.

For additional information:
Bates v. Little Rock 361 U.S. 516 (1960) https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/361/516/case.html (accessed August 20, 2021).

“Little Rock Look Back: Bates v. Little Rock US Supreme Court decision.” Little Rock Culture Vulture, February 23, 2016. https://lrculturevulture.com/2016/02/23/little-rock-look-back-bates-v-little-rock-us-supreme-court-decision/ (accessed August 20, 2021).

Stockley, Grif. Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2005.

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School


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