Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> Famed photographer had roots in area

If you turn off Hwy. 5 at Cabot near the freeway and drive down Cleland Road for less than a mile, you’ll come to Mt. Pleasant Road.

Turn right on the little road, and you’ll find Mt. Pleasant Church and Cemetery a few yards in front of you. The Counts family has several gravestones in the cemetery. Toward the end of the road, as you pass the church, you’ll see a marker for Ira Wilmer Counts and his wife, Jeanne.

Their son’s ashes are buried alongside them, although there’s not a marker there for him yet. He died in 2001 at the age of 70, and he, too, was named Ira Wilmer Counts, an award-winning photographer known simply as Will Counts, who grew up in Cabot, Plum Bayou near England, and Rose Bud in White County.

When he was a young man, he took two of the most famous photographs of the 20th Century: A mob harassing Elizabeth Eckford as she attempted to enter Central High School in September 1957.

The National Guard troops had just turned her away, under orders of Gov. Orval Faubus, and the mob kept taunting her until she got on a city bus and tearfully told her mother what had happened at school that morning. Counts’ other famous photo is of Alex Wilson, a black reporter for the Memphis Tri-State Defender, who was kicked and beaten by a furious mob in front of the school. The Associated Press and the Encyclopedia Britannica have included both photos in their lists of the most important photographs of the 20th Century.

You can see those photographs and dozens of others in Will Counts’ “A Life Is More Than a Moment: The Desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High,” with text by Counts and Robert S. McCord, who had hired Counts at the Arkansas Democrat just a few months before the crisis.

There’s also a chapter on Central by our own Ernie Dumas and an introduction by Will Campbell, a minister who was at the school during the troubles.

The first edition appeared a decade ago, when Counts was still alive, and this 50th anniversary edition paperback ($19.95 from Indiana University Press) coincides with the upcoming anniversary of Central High’s integration.

Counts was 27 years old, fresh out of college, but looked as if he were still in school, and he was assigned to cover the Central High School crisis. While other photographers were content with capturing your average newspaper photo — people milling around the high school, soldiers standing guard — young Counts was always where the action was: People were marching and screaming and protesting. They were on the move, and Counts was right in front of them.

He wore casual clothes, while other journalists wore suits and ties, so he could move around faster, and the other photographers carried bulky cameras, while he used his little 35-mm Nikon S2 wide-angle camera, shooting 36 exposures without reloading, jumping all over the place, despite a slight limp because of a difficult birth. (The older photographers had to reload film every time they took a picture.)

His hero was the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who believed in capturing the “decisive moment.” (The title of Counts’ book comes from a remark by Hazel Bryan, the white girl who screamed “Nigger! Nigger!” behind Elizabeth Eckford. Bryan said her life is more than that moment at Central.)

Cartier-Bresson would have been proud of the young man from rural Arkansas, where his father was a tenant farmer before the family moved to Little Rock. Counts attended Little Rock High School before it was renamed Central High. He’d lived in the neighborhood, and he knew his way around.

Almost everyone has seen his photo of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan. Another white girl, named Sammie Dean Parker, turned her head in that famous picture, but she’s seen in several other frames in the book.

(Bryan didn’t attend Central, but Parker and her boyfriend harassed the black students throughout the school year.)
Eckford, trying to escape the mob, made it to a bus stop, where Benjamin Fine of the New York Times told her, “Don’t let them see you cry.”

Counts’ classic photo made the front page of the New York Times last week, accompanying an article about the troubled Little Rock School District after 50 years of desegregation efforts. The picture is also on the cover of a recent history of the Central High School crisis, which I reviewed here six weeks ago. That photo, I wrote, should have won the Pulitzer Prize.

Until I read “A Life Is More Than a Moment,” I didn’t know that Counts had won the Pulitzer Prize, but the board of Columbia University, which administers the prize, overruled the judges who’d picked him and gave the award to someone else because too many journalists were honored that year for their Central High work.

The old Arkansas Gazette won two awards, while a couple of out-of-state reporters also received prizes.

Will, by all accounts an unassuming fellow, had to make do with other honors and seeing his photos reprinted all over the world.

Until I read Counts’ book, I also didn’t know that he was from around here. Growing up around England, he made friends with black kids and empathized with the Little Rock Nine and the black reporters who were trying to do their job outside the school. (There was another reason Will identified with minorities: His widow, Vivian Counts, told me her husband was part Cherokee.)

Notice Counts’ photo of the black reporter who was attacked by the mob, reprinted here: There’s a photographer on the right, still holding his bulky camera (Counts stuck to his much smaller camera), and another photographer is approaching the scene on the rear left. The first photographer was too stunned to take a picture, and the second photographer was probably too late to make his way around the mob.

President Eisenhower had seen Counts’ photos, especially the one of the Wilson beating, and Ike had enough: A decade earlier, he’d liberated Europe, where thugs had also attacked minorities in the streets, and he sent federal troops to Little Rock to enforce the law of the land.

Will left Little Rock in 1960, when the Associated Press offered him a job in Chicago. A few years later, he joined the faculty at Indiana University, where he taught photojournalism for 32 years.

Not long ago, Vivian Counts brought his ashes back home to Cabot. May his soul rest in peace.