The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 1957 photo of Jerry Jones reminds us how recent America’s past is

Defiant White students at North Little Rock High School block the doors of the school, denying access to six Black students enrolled in the Arkansas school on Sept. 9, 1957. Moments later, those students were shoved down a flight of stairs and onto the sidewalk, where city police broke up the altercation. (William P. Straeter/AP)

Last Wednesday, as Americans were traveling for Thanksgiving or otherwise preparing for the holiday, The Washington Post published an interesting story about Jerry Jones, the legendary owner of the Dallas Cowboys. The story was framed around Jones’s legacy with the NFL, including that his team had relied almost exclusively on White coaches during his tenure. And while that’s true, it may be a story from Jones’s youth that sheds the most interesting light on race and America.

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On Sept. 9, 1957, Jones was one of a few dozen White teenagers who confronted a group of Black students outside the doors of North Little Rock High in Arkansas. A photograph of the encounter taken by a photographer from the Associated Press centers on two White students — one laughing, one with a cigarette in his snarl — staring down one of the Black students. Shortly after the photo was taken, the Black students were pushed back down the stairs to the street, their effort to integrate the school rejected by force, at least for the time being.

And in the background, a few feet behind the snarling kid, you can see Jerry Jones.

To The Post, Jones’s memory of the day centered on concern about getting in trouble. After all, his football coach had warned players not to be involved should there be any unrest when the new students arrived. Jones clearly ignored that warning.

Consider what we’re looking at here, though. Photos from the time, from the period in which the United States was confronting endemic racism through the civil rights movement, are fittingly enough in black-and-white. That can have an anonymizing effect: This happened then and involved those people, lost to history. But we know that guy. He’s Jerry Jones. We know, at least in the abstract, what happened in the days and years after this photo of Jones was taken. He was there and he is here.

The past is never dead, as Faulkner said: It’s not even past. Jones is 80 now. Ruby Bridges, the little girl photographed in the company of U.S. marshals as she became the first Black girl to integrate a school in New Orleans in 1960, is barely of retirement age. And many other Americans are old enough to have been part of that same history.

The Census Bureau releases data showing the population by age in any given year. The most recent data, for 2021, gives us a sense of how many people alive last year were also alive at the time the photo of Jones was taken. By 1957, the baby boom was already well underway, meaning that a lot of Americans were alive, but still children. About 1 in 20 Americans, though, either turned 13 that year or were already teenagers or older. In other words, more than old enough to understand what was happening.

A smaller percentage of the country was alive in 1954, the year Brown v. Board of Education was decided, paving the way for Black students to join Whites in public schools that had previously been segregated. A bit more than 1 in 8 Americans alive in 2021 were alive that year, though only about 4 percent were teenagers or older.

A central achievement of the civil rights era came in 1964, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. That was the last year of the baby boom, meaning that the majority of the population surge that accompanied the boom had already occurred. So it was that, in 2021, more than a quarter of living Americans were born before the Civil Rights Act becoming law. More than 1 in 9 were teenagers or older.

Very, very few of those Americans participated in efforts to block school integration or were otherwise present at moments of history captured on film. The point, instead, is that they could have been. That Jones happened to be in that place at that time — and, it seems, of the predilection — to be among the students watching the Black kids get pushed away from the door. But 1 in 20 Americans alive in 2021 could have been there too. Could have seen that happen not in a still, black-and-white photo but in real life, in full color.

The past is not even past.

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