L. C. Bates had a way with words, and he was so good at his job that he was often the subject of a lawsuit.
Bates was involved with two serious legal conflicts, the first stemming from a contempt of court charge from an article published in the State Press that criticized a judge’s decision in a case about three negro oil mill workers who were on strike.
An excerpt from Irene Wassell’s 1980 thesis on L. C. Bates and the State Press:
“The strikers, Roy Cole, Jesse Bean, and Louis Jones, were convicted March 19, 1946, under an indictment charging that ‘by force and violence’ they prevented Otha Williams from engaging in a lawful occupation. Each defendant was sentenced to serve a year in prison and was taken to the penitentiary. Six days later, before the court was asked to grant a new trial, the State Press publicized the events of the trial and commented on its out-come. The headline of the article read: “Strikers Sentenced to Pen by Hand-Picked Jury.” The first paragraph of the news article read:
“Three strikers, who by all observation were guilty of no greater crime than walking on a picket line, were sentenced to one year in the penitentiary by a hand-picked grand jury, while a scab who killed a striker is free …. The prosecution was hard-pressed to make a case until Judge Lawrence C. Auten instructed the jury that the pickets could be found guilty if they aided or assisted, or just stood idly by while violence occurred.””
A few days after the article was published, the Bateses were arrested and word spread around town. Swiftly, a plan was devised by the black factory workers and maids who decided they would go on strike until the couple was released. The Bateses were released that day at 5 p.m. on a $2,000 bond paid by their lawyer. He advised the couple to immediately go to Ninth Street so that the black workers would know they were released from jail.
When the couple’s case was heard in court, they were fined $100 each and sentenced to 10 days in jail. They were charged with a number of things, including the publishing of a news article that was calculated to “influence, intimidate, impede, embarrass and obstruct the Pulaski Circuit Court and other Courts in the due administration of justice, and by further writing contemptuously of the Pulaski Court and the Jury and Jury Commissioners, and the presiding Judge of the First Division.”
Freedom of the press
The couple took their case to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in their favor. Using the Pennekamp vs. State of Florida case as the guideline for the ruling, Chief Justice Griffin Smith stated:
“Those elected to office must expect, and usually receive, approval and disapproval that alternates. A judge is no different from anyone else who has legal responsibilities and the dignity of a particular individual sitting on the bench is not a matter of importance paramount to the institution our system has designated as a court.”
A lost battle
The second case was a tough pill for Bates to swallow and a blow to the State Press. In 1950, Rev. M. D. Willett, pastor of the St. Paul Church of Christ, sued Bates for libel over two editorials he’d published about him in the State Press.
Bates wrote that the pastor’s weekly Sunday night sermons that were aired on a local radio station were more offensive than the odor from a cesspool that had been exposed to the sun from the morning of creation down to the present moment.
Willett sued for $15,000, but was only awarded $1,500. Dishing out that amount of money hurt the paper financially, but frustrated Bates even more because he felt the case against his paper was unjustifiable and that his lawyers failed to present the case properly, while also failing to contact the people who could have helped him win.