The Personal Is Political: Daisy Bates

In this lesson, students will learn about how Daisy Bates’ experiences as a black girl growing up in Jim Crow Little Rock prepared her to be a civil rights leader.
Grade Level


Students will:

  • Explore how personal stories are written with political goals;
  • Identify how Daisy Bates uses her story to speak about the larger experiences of Southern African Americans living during the Jim Crow Era;
  • Locate passages in the text where Bates makes her life political;
  • Reflect on the resiliency of the African-American community; and
  • Determine how some black activists’ development was shaped by their childhood experiences.
Essential Questions
  • How is writing a memoir different from writing an autobiography?
  • What is the difference between desegregation and integration?
  • What role do childhood experiences play in development into adulthood?
  • What did Daisy Bates seek to accomplish by writing her memoir?
  • What struggles or challenges did Daisy Bates face a young girl, and how are her experiences similar to obstacles you have faced in your own life?

Central Texts

Excerpts from “Rebirth,” Chapter two from Daisy Bates’s memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock:


Learning Activities

Part 1: Word Work

Many historical figures have written biographical accounts about their personal lives and political activism. Oftentimes, activists use the mediums of memoir and autobiography to forge a connection between their past and present actions. They seek to use their past, particularly their childhoods, to justify and explain their later activism. “Rebirth” can help you understand the ways in which personal identity and political beliefs intersect in memoir and autobiography.

  1. Before reading the first excerpt from Daisy Bates’ memoir, review definitions for the following words: memoir, autobiography, biography, symbolism, personify, didactic, Jim Crow, integration and desegregation. (Note: To check for understanding, students may use each word in a complete sentence.)
  2. Read the first five paragraphs of What it means to be Negro as a full class.
  3. Use highlighters to identify Bates’ main points.
  4. Divide into small groups. Each group will read one of the three excerpts from  “Rebirth.” (Group one will read the remainder of What it Means to be Negro about Daisy Bates’ first personal encounter with racism. Group two will read The Death of My Mother, about the rape and murder of Bates’ birth mother. Group three will read The Death of Daddy, about the parents who raised Bates and the death of her adoptive father.)
  5. Each group will read its assigned passage, highlighting important information, main points and quotes that capture how Bates uses her personal story to call attention to the issues of race- and gender-based discrimination.
  6. After reading and highlighting your passage, discuss your selections as a group.  Which passages best capture how Daisy Bates connects her personal experiences in her hometown to the larger political issues of race- and gender-based discrimination?  Record the most important passages on your chart paper.
  7. Once all groups have completed this activity, each will present to the class. Take notes when the other groups are presenting. (Note: Either provide a note-taking handout or allow students to develop their own note-taking style.)
  8. Take turns retelling, in your own words, the story you read in your group, and explain why you selected the quotes you chose. You must also explain how Bates uses her personal story to drive home a bigger political statement about race- and gender-based oppression.


Part 2: Close and Critical Reading

Daisy Bates was a civil rights leader who believed that her life possessed larger meaning. Students are free to form their own interpretation of Bates’ life. Interpretations may be dependent on cultural identity, personal experiences and knowledge, and may be different from others’ interpretations. When reading ask the following questions:

  1. Why does Daisy Bates choose to include this particular childhood experience in her memoir?
  2. What political message was she trying to convey by telling her readers her personal story?
  3. Is Daisy Bates persuasive? Do you believe her story? Why or why not?


Part 3: Community Inquiry

Scholars of African-American history have written extensively about how African Americans have used personal stories—autobiography and memoir—to achieve political goals. Many black activists identified childhood events as the beginning of their political activism. In order to understand the political nature of Daisy Bates’ memoir, it is important to understand how and why some African-American activists and writers politicize their lives in their personal accounts.

  1. (Note: Set up the room as one large circle with a smaller circle on the inside.) Read “The Politics of Remembering and Writing about Black Childhoods” as an entire group.  Do not take notes or highlight while the passage is being read.
  2. After reading, answer the following questions as a class: In Dr. Nellie McKay’s opinion, what reasons motivate some African Americans to write personal accounts? Is Daisy Bates’ memoir an example of a political autobiography? What type of statements does McKay attribute to African-American autobiographies? How do some African-American writers politicize their lives, and why?
  3. Return to the text, and highlight what you think are Adams’ two central ideas.
  4. In your own words, rewrite the two main points Adams makes about the political nature of black biography and black childhoods.
  5. After you have annotated the text and shared your story with the rest of the class, return to your group’s reading (either excerpt 1, 2 or 3 from “Rebirth” ).
  6. Each group should move into the inner circle as its excerpt is discussed. (Note: Help facilitate a discussion driven by the Close and Critical Reading and Community Inquiry questions.) You should also discuss similarities and differences between your passage and those read by your classmates. 


Part 4: Write to the Source

Daisy Bates was one of the civil rights movement’s most important female leaders. She endured a difficult childhood and used her traumatic experiences as fuel for her civil rights activism. The rape and murder of her birth mother, abandonment by her birth father, a confrontation with her mother’s killers, and the loss of her adoptive father to cancer Bates’ youth a difficult one. These same events propelled her into a life dedicated to changing the history she was forced to live.

Write a letter to Daisy Bates about the event in her childhood with which you most identify. Think about the following questions:

  • Why do I identify with this part of Daisy Bates’ childhood?
  • How did the experience I selected shape the woman Bates became?


Part 5: Do Something

Celebrate Daisy Bates Day, which is the third Monday in February. Use the day to educate your school and community about an important, but lesser-known civil rights leader.

Common Core State Standards (English Language Arts Standards) 

CCSS: R.1, R.2, R.3, R.4, R.10, W.1, W.2, W.3, W.4, W.9, SL.1, SL.2, SL.3, SL.4, L.1, L.2, L.3


Extension Activity

Research civil rights activists who are still living. Select one, and write them a letter thanking them for their leadership in the civil rights movement.

Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

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