*PBS kicks off its Black History Month programming this week with the premiere of “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock.”

The name Daisy Bates doesn’t ring a bell? The filmmaker, too, had no idea who she was when she first came across Bates’ story in the portrait book, “I Dream a World.” Published in the 1990s, the coffee table tome featured profiles of 75 outstanding African American women.

“It’s a fantastic book, but Daisy’s story is the one that I really connected to, and it jumped out at me because I didn’t know her story,” says Sharon La Cruise, the documentary’s director.

Daisy Bates was, in fact, the engine that drove the “Little Rock Nine.” The native of Huttig, Arkansas played a leading role in the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, and her involvement came with as much pride as it did controversy.

Bates, who regularly wrote about violations of the Supreme Court’s desegregation laws in her husband’s newspaper, became the chief guide and adviser to the nine black students attempting to enroll at the all-white school.  But, as their story attracted more media interest, Bates found herself the de facto spokesperson for the effort on an international scale – which caused some folks in town to believe she was getting “too big for her britches,” as one person in the film put it.

Filmmaker Sharon La Cruise speaks onstage during the Independent Lens Examines Black History Month panel during the PBS portion of the 2012 Winter TCA Tour at The Langham Huntington Hotel and Spa on Jan. 5, 2012 in Pasadena, California

Eventually, a civil rights victory was claimed when the National Guard swooped in to assist the nine in entering the school – and Bates was heralded as a national hero.  In 1963, she was one of only three women to speak at the historic March on Washington.  But over time, her name was mentioned less and less, with current text books all but ignoring her contribution to the movement.

“I just couldn’t understand, because I studied history and I thought I knew it extensively, especially African American history. I didn’t know why I didn’t know anything about her,” said La Cruise. “So I read her autobiography. I wrote her a letter. I said basically what I’ve just said, to her, that I didn’t understand why I didn’t know about her, and I want to know more about her, and I thought her life would make this incredible film.”

“Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock” begins airing tonight at 10 p.m. as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens.” [Airdates and times vary from market to market, so check local listings.]

Daisy Bates with copies of her memoir "The Long Shadow of Little Rock," and plaques from the NAACP for the nine students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock. A large picture of Daisy and the nine students hangs in the background. They are L-R, front row: Thelma Mothershed, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray; and row 2 left to right: Jefferson Thomas, Melba Pattillo, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Daisy Bates, and Ernest Green.

La Cruise never got a chance to meet Bates. When the filmmaker first reached out to her in the mid-90s, she was already in declining health after suffering several strokes.

“At the time, I didn’t realize she was not that healthy,” said La Cruise. “She wrote back through her attorney that she would love to explore the idea, and then at the time, I worked on a short film in grad school at NYU, but I had never done a film. So I spent about two years kind of festering, trying to figure out how I would do this film and unfortunately wasted a lot of time, and then she passed away (on Nov. 4, 1999, from a heart attack) before I could actually meet her in person.

Daisy Bates

Once La Cruise got enough of a game plan to move forward with the film, she says the production process was like “jumping off a clip without a parachute.”  Listen below.

[Scroll down for the trailer and details of an interactive screening event from Central High with filmmaker Sharon La Cruise.]

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  • On Friday, Feb. 3, PBS is producing an interactive screening of “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock” from Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. Moderated by PBS NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan and featuring filmmaker Sharon La Cruise, the event will take place here Friday at 11:30 AM PT / 1:30 PM CT / 2:30 PM ET.