Will Counts, the photographer whose stark images of racial hatred helped draw a nation’s attention to the desegregation crisis at Arkansas’ Central High School in 1957, has died at age 70.
Counts died of cancer Saturday at a hospice in Bloomington, Ind.
His most famous shot from the period showed a lone black student named Elizabeth Eckford braving an angry white mob on the first day of school in 1957, when Central High in Little Rock was to admit its first nine black students.
A few weeks later, when the students were finally allowed to enter the school, he took another stirring photo: A black journalist named Alex Wilson was shown being kicked in the face by a white man holding a brick as a crowd watched.
Shortly after the latter picture was published, President Eisenhower sent 1,000 Army paratroopers to Little Rock to quell the protests. Eisenhower reportedly made the decision to send in troops after seeing Counts’ photo of Wilson.
Counts was the son of a Little Rock tenant farmer. He became interested in photojournalism at Little Rock High School, which later became Central High.
By the time he entered Arkansas Teachers College in 1949, he knew he wanted to be a news photographer. After earning a master’s degree in education at Indiana University, he returned to Little Rock and found work at the Arkansas Democrat.
He was a 26-year-old photographer for the Democrat’s Sunday magazine on Sept. 4, 1957, when white demonstrators and the Arkansas National Guard gathered outside Central High. Then-Gov. Orval E. Faubus had called out the guard to block the integration ordered by a federal court after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.
Counts donned an inconspicuous flannel shirt and slacks, grabbed his 35-millimeter camera and headed for his alma mater, where he elbowed his way past neighbors and former classmates waiting for the black students to appear.
While most of the blacks approached the school as a group, 15-year-old Eckford made the trip alone. Turned back from the school by the guardsmen, she walked away from the campus with a white mob at her heels.
Counts, running backward in front of the crowd, snapped away.
He captured Eckford, her lips grimly pursed, walking steadily down a street. The tension in the photo comes from a white girl marching angrily after her, her face snarled in hate.
The crowd was “right in her ear . . . yelling their hate,” Counts recalled in a CBS interview a few years ago. Eckford, he noted, never lost her composure. “She just remained so dignified, so determined in what she was doing,” he said.
That picture, along with four others that Counts took, were published on the Democrat’s front page.
Three weeks later, he made Page 1 again with his photo of Wilson. A reporter for the Tri-State Defender, a weekly black publication in Memphis, Wilson was one of several black journalists who were trying to cover the desegregation of Central High.
When Counts’ shutter clicked, a white man holding a brick was kicking Wilson full in the face. Wilson was doubled over but grasping a hat in one hand. Wilson later told Counts that he wanted to maintain his dignity and that the hat was “the only piece of dignity I had.”
The mob pursued Wilson for a block, kicking him even when he was down. Wilson, Counts wrote in a story that accompanied the photo, did not fight back.
The photo was published Sept. 23, 1957. On Sept. 24, Eisenhower federalized Arkansas’ National Guard and ordered 1,000 members of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock.
“I really thought that the best thing I could do for that man was to record what was happening rather than interfering,” Counts told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1997. “President Eisenhower said he saw those pictures and it made a difference. After he saw them, that’s when the federal troops came in.”
Counts nearly won a Pulitzer for his work that year. The prize was overruled by a Pulitzer board that had already decided to award three Pulitzers for Little Rock coverage and thought four would be too many.
His shot of Wilson won a first-place award from the National Press Photographers Assn. and was chosen as one of the world’s 50 most memorable news pictures of the last half-century by Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Counts left Little Rock in 1960 to work as a photographer for Associated Press. Three years later, he joined the faculty of Indiana University, where he developed a highly regarded photojournalism program. He retired in 1995.
In 1997, he came out of retirement to photograph life at Central High 40 years after its tumultuous integration. Many of his photos from 1957 and 1997 were published in a book from the Indiana University Press called “A Life Is More Than a Moment.”
The title came from a line spoken to him by Hazel Bryan Massery, the white teenager whose face was twisted in hate in the background of the famous shot of Eckford.
Eckford said in interviews on the 40th anniversary of Central High’s integration that it still pained her to look at the photo of her by Counts. Massery, according to interviews, quickly regretted the picture, which she said made her a “poster child for the hate generation.”
Massery called Eckford a few years later to apologize, but the two women never met until Counts brought them together to photograph them in front of Central High in 1997. That photo showed them smiling. They have since become friends.
Counts is survived by his wife, Vivian; two daughters, Claudia of New York and Katharine Lattimer of Bell Fountaine, Ohio; two sons, Wyatt of New York and Chris of Chicago; two grandsons; and a nephew.