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.
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.