The Sad Truth About Jerry Jones’ North Little Rock School Photo
Photo: Stephen Dunn/Allsport/Getty Images

The Sad Truth About Jerry Jones’ North Little Rock School Photo

Yes, the Dallas Cowboys owner’s racism is hard to deny, but the infamous picture taken at a 1957 desegregation protest nods to an even more terrifying reality

Last week, before people started to prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, the Washington Post unearthed some news I don’t think anybody had on their bingo cards: Jerral Wayne Jones, better known as the owner of the Dallas Cowboys Jerry Jones, was one of the white boys in a crowd that harassed and tried to prevent Black students from desegregating North Little Rock High in Arkansas on Sept 9, 1957.

This isn’t to be confused with Little Rock Central High, where the Little Rock Nine busted through the doors, though that did take place during the same month across the Arkansas River just four miles south. The news is surprising because, first of all, what type of name is Jerral? And second of all, it’s wild how close Jones was to having his very own Forrest Gump moment. Just a hop, skip, and a mile away. I’m only shocked by the revelation because I didn’t see it coming, but dear reader, I was born a Cowboys fan, and will in all likelihood sadly die a Cowboys fan. I know me some Jerry. I’ll invent a Jerryism of my own to tell you how I feel about this. Let me tell ya, it’s like getting bit in the behind by a pooch in the dark, just because you might not be expecting it, don’t mean it’s not in the beast’s nature.

The photo, captured by William P. Straeter of the Associated Press, doesn’t see Jones snarling or anything like that, just peering into the crowd. On most of the boys’ faces you can see animus in their eyes, but in that snapshot, Jones looks genuinely curious. This is what he told the Washington Post about why he was there. He said even though his head football coach gave the team a clear directive to steer clear of the scene because there might be trouble, he went anyway. He just had to see. “I don’t know that I or anybody anticipated or had a background of knowing … what was involved," he told the Post. "It was more a curious thing.” As far as I’m concerned, all those kids in that photo are racist little shits—that includes the curious cat Jones, too. There’s really no evidence of the contrary.

Jones’ response, when asked by the Post about his presence, wasn’t an admonishment of the obscene display of racism that day. He didn’t empathize with the Black children who were terrorized. He didn’t reveal that his curiosity led to disgust. He didn’t say he was opposed to the integration (which is the most likely case), but has since changed or grown in the decades since. There are many roads he could have traveled in explaining his presence in the photo, but he chose the route of trying to divert your attention away from what he really thought. No honest reflection on that day, because he’s a hall-of-fame deflector. To use another Jerryism: You can’t throw peaches on bull-you-know-what and try to sell it off as peach cobbler, it’s still bull-you-know-what.

The disturbing thing is knowing that, just like Jerry inherited racism from his elders and environment, everybody else in that photo probably carried on tradition, too, in ways that are slight and immeasurable.

Benevolent racism is still, well, racism. One of the reasons Jones has been so successful is because in many ways he can relate to Black people better than any other NFL owner will ever dream of until the day there’s a Black person who owns an NFL team. This is in part because of the way he grew up. His father, every bit of the smooth-talking showman and shrewd businessman Jones would become, owned the only integrated grocery store in town. When he was a kid, he passed out advertisements in the peculiarly named Black part of town, Dixie Addition. He became familiar with the people there. However, just a few months after that photo was taken at North Little Rock High, Jerry’s father, Pat, ran for local office. His views on full integration were that he stood for “states’ rights.”

We are products of our origins. Jones’ father was an anti-integration man who sold food to Black people in a store where they could walk through the front door. Jones’ grandfather was a bit more unrepentant, a dues-paying member of the Capital Citizens’ Council, the Little Rock version of the White Citizen’s Council. Jones, who was a captain of the national championship-winning University of Arkansas football team in 1964, didn’t have a Black teammate until the year after he had graduated. (The player who broke the color line, Darrell Brown, never actually got the chance to play because he sustained an ankle injury.)

It’s silly to think a man with all of this in his lineage could be anything other than racist. It should be the assumption until they prove otherwise, and pussyfooting around issues of race and racism is not the evidence of otherwise. We know he threatened players with punishment if they followed Colin Kaepernick’s lead. We also know the Dallas Cowboys has never hired a Black head coach. Furthermore, his team has only employed two Black men as coordinators—Maurice Carthon on offense and Brian Stewart on the other side of the ball. Both of their tenures only lasted one year. Jones is just like his daddy and like his daddy’s daddy, too, albeit a bit more subtle, cowardly, and keenly aware of what Black people can do for him.

The most haunting thing about that photo isn’t the presence of one of the most famous owners in sports. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t—we know about who Jerry Jones is and about a lot of his dirt. The disturbing thing is knowing that, just like Jerry inherited racism from his elders and environment, everybody else in that photo probably carried on tradition, too, in ways that are slight and immeasurable. We don’t know what type of power they’ve amassed, where their kids are, or their grandchildren. Did they help enact racist policies? Throw a job application in the garbage because of the color of somebody’s skin? Did they do something unthinkable in the quiet of the night? Where were these people and their bloodlines on January 6, 2021? What jobs did the boys in that photo take and what did they teach their children?