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Will Counts: The Central High School Photographs

August 8, 2017 – October 22, 2017

This exhibition was organized by the Arkansas Arts Center

It was not the plan for Elizabeth Eckford to walk alone toward Central High. This exhibition of photographs marks the 60th anniversary of the historic integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 by the band of African American students who were dubbed the Little Rock Nine. The drama unfolded over several years, culminating in the fall 1957 events documented by local press photographer Will Counts (1931-2001) in powerful black and white images that appeared all over the country. While many press photographers documented the events at Central High, Counts’ photographs became emblematic of the event.

The Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional, but few schools in the South complied with the ruling. In 1955, Little Rock decided to integrate its all-white public schools in stages. This would start with Central High School in the fall of 1957. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People brought suit against the slow plan, while there was outcry from the white community against desegregating schools at all. In August 1957, a federal court declared that no one should interfere with the planned desegregation of Central High. Local organizations protested and an injunction was granted. Finally, Federal District Judge Ronald Davis ordered the segregation to proceed.

No attempt at desegregation was made on the first day of school, September 3, in hopes of avoiding violence. On September 4, 1957, the second scheduled day of school, nine black students planned to attend Central High. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent them from attending. Will Counts was on the scene at Central High on the morning of September 4th with his camera. He dressed informally so he could blend in with the crowd. Counts photographed events from a frighteningly close vantage point as the nine African-American students encountered an angry white mob and the Arkansas National Guard outside the school. Counts captured the most famous images of African-American student Elizabeth Eckford, who was separated from her fellow students and tried to enter Central High School alone. She was turned away by the Arkansas National Guard and viciously taunted by white local citizens. Counts continued to document events, including the morning of September 25. This was the moment when the Little Rock Nine first entered Central High, accompanied by members of the 101st Airborne Division, sent in by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Little Rock Nine attended school for the rest of the year, except for one student who was expelled for retaliating against harassment by white students. But the crisis was not over. During the 1958-1959 school year, all four of Little Rock’s public high schools were closed to prevent desegregation. The schools reopened, integrated, in the fall of 1959.

The Arts Center’s exhibition will feature about 35 prints from the group of black and white negatives Counts made of the events at Central High in the fall of 1957. In 1997, Will Counts generously gave the Arts Center prints he had made from his original negatives. The AAC last exhibited a large grouping of these works ten years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary of the ordeal of the Little Rock Nine. The Arts Center will complement this exhibition by installing in the Alice Pratt Brown Atrium works from the AAC Foundation Collection highlighting social problems and solutions.

Featured Works from the Exhibition

Will Counts (American, Little Rock, 1931 – 2001, Evansville, Illinois), It was not the plan for Elizabeth Eckford to walk along toward Central High, 1957 (printed 1997), gelatin silver print, 25 x 32 inches, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection: Gift of the artist, Bloomington, Indiana. 1997.039.007

Will Counts (American, Little Rock, 1931 – 2001, Evansville, Illinois), Surrounded by newsmen . . ., 1957 (printed 1997), gelatin silver print, 18 x 22 inches, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection: Gift of the artist, Bloomington, Indiana. 1997.039.011

Will Counts (American, Little Rock, 1931 – 2001, Evansville, Illinois), Accompanied by federal 101st Airborne troops, the “Little Rock Nine” enter, 1957 (printed 1997), gelatin silver print, 21 x 27 inches, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection: Gift of the artist, Bloomington, Indiana. 1997.039.030

Arkansas Arts Center programs are supported in part by: The City of Little Rock; the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau; the City of North Little Rock; Arkansas Arts Center Board of Trustees; and the Arkansas Arts Council, an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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