Like almost all educated Black people I have seen the photos, the photos of Black students walking into segregated schools through crowds of angry white people trying to keep them that way. Of course, the subject of these photos is usually the Black people in the foreground, but my thoughts were often with the white people in the background.
Where were these people today? How many of them have I passed on the street? How many of their grandchildren did I go to school with? Do they still feel the same way today?
You rarely get the answers to those questions because people very seldom admit to being one of those people. Also, many of them have passed. But surely, some of them are still alive … Where are they? We now know one of them is in the owner’s box for the Dallas Cowboys.
A photo of a teenage Jerry Jones standing in a crowd of white students attempting to block Black students from entering the building at Arkansas’ North Little Rock High School in 1957 has been unearthed. This was not the “Little Rock Nine” though being on the wrong end of a lesser-known integration conflict on the same day doesn’t exactly take the sting off. It is also worth noting that nobody debated the authenticity of the photo as Jerry Jones himself has admitted to being there … though not exactly in the capacity that has just been revealed.
I don’t necessarily think Jerry Jones is “racist.” He might be. I don’t know him, but I don’t think a photo of him standing in a crowd when he was 14 proves he is. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until he does something as an adult that proves otherwise.
So then, why do we need to talk about it?
This serves as a reminder that the “Civil Rights” era was not that long ago. Until the 1970s, the medium of photography was largely still black and white … no pun intended. Black and white photos play tricks on your brain as a historian. It tempts you into accepting a convenient dividing line between recent and distant history. Color photography is often the de-facto B.C. – A.D. line of modern civilization. It allows us to arbitrarily associate everything in monochrome as distant, but that is not how history works. Cleopatra may have died in 30 BC but people who met her lived well into AD times, and her legacy clearly mattered well beyond her death.
Because of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, we often forget how many of these Civil Rights figures are still alive. Jesse Jackson is still alive. Andrew Young is still alive. Bobby Seale is still alive. On the subject of school integration, Ruby Bridges is still alive, and she’s only 68, around the same age as my mother. She’s young enough to still be in the workforce. Those who threw the tomatoes at her could still be alive too, and if they can be the owners of an NFL franchise, they could be a banker, a teacher, or a police officer. They could be the ones signing your checks or denying your insurance claims. Jerry Jones might not be racist today, but other people in the crowd may be.
The other reason I am talking about it is because when the news about Jerry Jones broke obviously there were people criticizing him. However, he had no shortage of defenders either, even Black people. Those defenders might have a point: 14-year-old Jerry Jones could be a completely different person than 80-year-old Jerry Jones. But if we can come to that conclusion about old White men who commit social taboos like racism, then we should be able to do the same for Black and Latino teenagers today. In a country that routinely charges a 14-year-old as an adult, the idea that Jerry Jones shouldn’t be held accountable because of his age doesn’t make much sense to me. I don’t need anything to happen to Jerry Jones, and I certainly don’t want him to go on some apology tour. But if we are going to do this song and dance every time we catch a white person on the wrong side of race issues in their youth, then I need us to extend that grace to everyone else for other situations, too.
Jerry Jones is probably not happy this picture came out. However, it is history and in the long run, it is good to have. It reminds us that the past is all around us and that some people will get a pass on their past and some people won’t.