Jerry Jones is a storyteller. Not in a fictional sense, though some of the stories Jones has told over the years might leave you saying, “Did this actually happen?”
Jones’ stories come from 80 years worth of life experience.
Many stories we know, like when Jones’ father persuaded him not to purchase the San Diego franchise of the American Football League. We know he was in Cabo on vacation when he discovered the Cowboys were for sale. We know his side of the story when it was time to part ways with Jimmy Johnson. We know why he stuck with Jason Garrett for nearly 10 years. We know the stories of when it was time to build AT&T Stadium.
Jerry Jones has lived a public life, and it appears he’s embraced most of it.
There is one story he hasn’t told enough, however, considering what he’s seen. It’s the one about the day he stood on the schoolhouse steps in North Little Rock, Ark., watching as six Black teenagers were denied entry into his high school.
The date was Sept. 9, 1957. It was a different time in our country. A time when the Supreme Court ruled schools could no longer segregate based on race. It was time for equal rights for people of color.
In the South, it was difficult to accept.
Particularly in Arkansas.
A black and white photo shows Jones, a month shy of turning 15, wearing a striped shirt and standing with a group of white people as the six Black teenagers were jeered while walking up the steps of Jones’ North Little Rock High School.
Why wouldn’t Jones want to tell this story?
Was Jones there to support the protest of desegregation? Or was he there as a teenage boy wanting to get a closer look at what was going on?
“Look, that was 65 years ago, I had no idea when I walked up there what we were doing,” Jones said after the Cowboys’ victory over the Giants on Thursday. “It just was a reminder to me how to improve and do things the right way.”
Jones’ presence at the shameful event in our nation’s history is a topic now because the picture, taken by the Associated Press, was unearthed and published this week by the Washington Post as the newspaper digs into the background of NFL owners in an effort to understand why some franchises, such as the Cowboys and New York Giants, have never hired a Black person as head coach.
“That was, gosh, 65 years ago and purest kid,” he said. “I didn’t know at the time [how] monumental [of an] event really that was going on, and I’m sure glad we are a long way from that. I am. And just that would remind me to just continue to do everything we can to not have those kinds of things happen.”
The world in 1957 was different.
In May 1954 the Supreme Court, in the historic Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka (Kan.) case, ruled the segregation of schools was unconstitutional.
In 1957, the Little Rock School Board voted to desegregate schools moderately with an expectation that all schools would be fully open to all regardless of race by 1963.
Court rulings delayed the process until a federal court finally ordered the schools to desegregate.
On Sept. 4, 1957, nine Black students were denied entry into Little Rock Central High school.
Then on Sept. 9, six Black students tried to enter Jones’ North Little Rock High School. Jones wanted to know what was going on at his school. He told the Washington Post his high school football coach told the players not to go to the school. Jones went anyway.
“Seriously, that was curiosity,” Jones said. “I got criticized because I was more interested in how I was going to get punished by my coaches and everybody for being [there]. Nobody there had any idea, frankly, what was going to take place. You didn’t. We didn’t have all the 70 years of reference and all the things that was going [on]. You didn’t have a reference point there. Still I’ve got a habit of sticking this nose in the [wrong] place at the wrong time. I sure did.”
President Eisenhower spoke to the nation on Sept. 24 from the White House, frustrated but determined for the law to be followed.
“It was my hope that this localized situation would be brought under control by city and state authorities,” Eisenhower said in his speech. “If the use of local police powers had been sufficient, our traditional methods of leaving the problem in those hands would have been pursued.
“But when large gatherings of obstructionists made it impossible for the decrees of the court to be carried out, both the law and the national interest demand that the President take action.”
The next day, nine Black teenagers were allowed entry into Little Rock Central. President Eisenhower sent a little more than 1,000 troops from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to protect the teenagers’ entry into the school.
The nine Black teenagers made history.
Jones wasn’t a part of history when it came to the desegregation of schools. He was a spectator watching the scene unfold. Now, people are questioning why he was even there. It seems incongruous that Jones wouldn’t know the theme of what was going on back in 1957 as a teenager.
Maybe he was naïve. What he saw back then surely had to shape his thoughts about what’s happened over the past couple of years.
In 2016, quarterback Colin Kaepernick started a racial reckoning among players when he knelt before the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color. Jones didn’t recall the struggle of Black people as a teenager at that time. Instead, he seemed more concerned with not upsetting certain segments of his fan base than with the expression of his players. Remember Jones’ “toe on the line” comment when it came to players who wanted to kneel during the anthem?
Jones referenced it again Thursday. It wasn’t about his support for people of color, he was about the bottom line: Business. Money.
Jones was the only NFL owner to speak with the Washington Post on the topic of race and the league’s hiring practices. The photo of Jones pushed him into an uncomfortable spotlight.
The photo wasn’t hidden. It’s been in plain sight for years, although Jones’ presence had remained under the radar. Some people from that day were shown in a similar photo that ran on the front page of the Arkansas Democrat’s afternoon edition with the headline: “Students Push Back Six Negroes Trying to Enter NLR High.”
Jones missed the cut in that photo.
Jones’ comments Thursday and in the Washington Post report were similar. He’s also spoken about the photo as part of a history project with the University of Arkansas, his alma mater.
What’s so compelling about Jones is that he’s not backing away from his thoughts about that time in 1957. He doesn’t hide from the fact that he was there. Jones has never been a man to run from a fight, whether it’s with the NFL, reporters, fans, players, coaches or other NFL owners.
Others might say the revelation of this photo confirms theories about why Jones and other NFL owners don’t hire more Blacks as head coaches. Jones says relationships are a major reason why coaches are hired.
A person’s past is complex. What one might have believed in the 1950s, he or she might not believe today. It’s difficult for some Black people of a certain age to accept change in white people who grew up during the Civil Rights Era. The state of Arkansas didn’t become fully integrated until 1972.
The fact Jones has surrounded himself with Black people as employees, whether as players, front office personnel or other areas of his business, isn’t lost here.
The point of the Washington Post story is Jones has never hired a Black person as head coach, the most important job underneath him.
The photo of Jones at North Little Rock High was pushed to the forefront this week as the genesis of why it hasn’t, or may never, happen. The photo could also represent Jones being sensitive to the plight of Black and brown people, acknowledging the difficulties it takes to get a fair chance in the corporate world, especially the NFL.
Yet Jones does only so much, despite being in a position to do much more to make that photo as irrelevant now as it was impactful in 1957.