Behind the Lens: Will Counts

How the photographer behind that photo of Little Rock Nine member Elizabeth Eckford (and countless others) came to be in the right place at the right time—and how that moment stayed with him forever

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Photos by Will Counts for the “Arkansas Democrat”

“The Little Rock news media didn’t expect the beginning of integration at Central High to be that big a story,” photographer Will Counts wrote in his book, A Life Is More Than a Moment: The Desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High. A native Arkansan, he’d returned to Little Rock after earning his master’s degree from Indiana University to work for the Sunday magazine of the Arkansas Democrat just three months before. On that day, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 1957, he’d gone to Central High, his alma mater, and split off from the pack of newsmen gathered at the school’s 16th Street entrance. The images he captured that day are, unequivocally, some of the most iconic, era-defining and disturbing to have ever come from this state. In his book, Counts described how they came to be:

“There were only a couple newsmen waiting at 14th and Park when Elizabeth Eckford approached the National Guardsmen. White students had been passing through the line of troops along the sidewalk. I had suspicions but no real knowledge that the Guardsmen had orders to bar the black students from entering.

Divine guidance may have placed me in the best possible position to see and photograph Elizabeth Eckford as she approached the school. When she was turned away by the National Guard troops, the courage and grace she exhibited as she walked two blocks through the mob of school-integration dissidents became one of my most moving experiences. Her actions epitomized for me the nonviolent principles Dr. Matin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had begun using to compel the country toward racial justice.

But this 15-year-old girl wasn’t part of the national civil rights movement. She has said that she wished to go to Central High School because she wanted to be a lawyer, and she believed that the excellent academic reputation would help her toward that career goal. Before she became the first black student to attempt to enter Central High, Elizabeth had not met Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She believes she was chosen by the Little Rock School District to be one of the Little Rock Nine because she wasn’t tied to the NAACP.

Elizabeth’s family was poor and didn’t have a telephone in their home. Daisy Bates cites this as her reason for not informing Elizabeth of the plan for all the students to meet at the Bateses’ home and go to Central High accompanied by a group of black and white ministers. Instead she came to school as instructed by the school office, with the understanding that the National Guardsmen were there to protect her as she entered.

Her imperturbable walk through the mob has become a slow-motion cinema verite memory. I still find it difficult to believe that this display of racial hatred was happening in front of my high school and my camera.

As I watched and composed the photographs, I didn’t know what might happen at each step Elizabeth took. The mob became increasingly strident, and while I saw no one attempt to strike Elizabeth, that possibility was always present. The National Guard troops remained on the sidewalk, passively watching the crowds verbally assail her. It was only as she neared the bus stop at 16th and Park streets that a National Guard officer briefly moved into the crush of demonstrators.

Elizabeth has told me that as she was sitting on a bench at the bus stop, she wondered why the newsmen, including me, who crowded around didn’t assist her onto a bus. I have no good answer for her question.”

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