The iconic photos shot by Arkansas photographer Will Counts during the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School comprise a Jan. 7 - Feb. 28 exhibition at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith.
The traveling exhibition from the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, on display in the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center, provides an opportunity for a variety of people to come away with a better understanding of this difficult period in Arkansas history, according to Keith Melton, assistant registrar at the Arkansas Arts Center.
Notes accompanying the exhibit trace the timeline of efforts to desegregate public accommodations and schools in Little Rock. Counts’ photos document the hatred and bigotry that accompanied the transition, according to Melton.
Exhibition notes explain that Counts’ powerful images of the Central High School desegregation crisis were shot on Sept. 4, 1957. The most recognizable photo is that of Elizabeth Eckford being harassed by white students in the front of the school. Shooting 35 mm film, Counts was able to make 36 exposures before reloading and was thereby able to follow the example of his idol, French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who believed that shooting many exposures would increase the chances of getting the best representative shot of an event.
Counts and his wife Vivian successfully organized a 1997 reconciliation between Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery, the young white student pictured screaming at Eckford in the now infamous photo, according to the exhibition’s notes.
The Pulitzer jury for photography unanimously recommended Counts for a Pulitzer Prize in 1957, but the board overruled the jury, possibly reasoning that four prizes for coverage of a single event would be too many. Two Pulitzers that year went to the Arkansas Gazette, and another to an Associated Press reporter for the Central High story, according to the exhibition notes.
Counts’ photograph of journalist Alex Wilson being beaten, harassed, and kicked took first place in the spot news category of the 15th annual “News Picture of the Year Competition,” then sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association, Encyclopedia Britannica, and the University of Missouri School of Journalism, according to the exhibition notes. It was also selected by Encyclopedia Britannica as one of the world’s 50 most memorable news pictures of the past 50 years. It was said President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered federal troops to the school after seeing the photo.
The Arkansas Arts Center, which is providing the exhibition, describes itself as a dynamic center for the arts. It features a museum with a collection of international art. The strength of the collection is works on paper with an emphasis on drawings and contemporary craft objects. It also includes paintings, sculpture and the largest U.S. repository of watercolors and drawings by 19th century artist Paul Signac. The AAC also features the award-winning Children’s Theatre, art classes and public programs. In addition, the AAC offers touring programs for communities, such as Children’s Theatre on Tour, the Artmobile and traveling exhibitions such as the one at UAFS.
Exhibit space is located in the west hallway of the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center. Hours are 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m.-4 p.m. on Fridays. For more information, call the Campus and Community Events office, through which exhibits are arranged, at 479-788-7300.