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1957 On September 9, Jones was one of several dozen white teenagers who confronted a group of black students at the doors of a high-rise in North Little Rock, Arkansas. A photo of the meeting taken by an Associated Press photographer focuses on two white students, one laughing, one puffing on a cigarette, staring at one of the black students. Shortly after the photo was taken, black students were pushed back onto the street, their efforts to integrate the school, at least for the time being, forcefully rejected.
And in the background, a few feet behind the snarling kid, you can see Jerry Jones.
For The Post, Jones’ recollection of the day focused on the concern of getting into trouble. After all, his football coach had warned the players not to get involved if the new students’ arrival caused trouble. Jones apparently ignored that warning.
However, consider what we’re looking at here. Photographs of the time, from a time when the United States was confronting endemic racism through the civil rights movement, are fittingly black-and-white. It may have an anonymizing effect then and involved those people, lost to history. But we know the guy. He’s Jerry Jones. We know, however abstractly, 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 now 80 years old. Ruby Bridges, the little girl who posed with U.S. marshals when she became the first black girl to integrate in a New Orleans school in 1960, is barely past retirement age. And many other Americans are old enough to have been part of the same story.
The Census Bureau publishes data that shows the age of the population in a given year. The most recent data from 2021 gives us an idea of how many people who were alive last year were also alive when Jones’ photo was taken. By 1957, the baby boom was well underway, meaning that many Americans were alive but still children. However, about 1 in 20 Americans either turned 13 that year or were already teenagers or older. In other words, more than age to understand what is going on.
A smaller percentage of the Earth was alive in 1954 Brown v. Board of Education was decided, paving the way for black students to join whites in previously segregated public schools. A little more than 1 in 8 Americans alive in 2021 were alive that year, although 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. It was the last year of the baby boom, meaning that most of the population that accompanied the boom had already happened. Thus, more than a quarter of Americans alive in 2021 were born before the Civil Rights Act became 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 the moments of history captured on film. The question, instead, is that they could have been. Jones happened to be in the area at the time, and apparently out of propensity, to be among the students who watched the black children being turned away from the door. But 1 in 20 Americans alive in 2021 could be there, too. You could see it not in a still, black-and-white photo, but in real life, in full color.
The past is not even the past.