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Students Steve Posten, 17, and Jessalyn Gray, 18, wait tensely beside a cab while a crowd of whites taunts them outside Texarkana Junior College, Texarkana, Tex., 1956. Jessalyn eventually asked police to escort them inside. When the police refused, the students left.
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Students Steve Posten, 17, and Jessalyn Gray, 18, wait tensely beside a cab while a crowd of whites taunts them outside Texarkana Junior College, Texarkana, Tex., 1956. Jessalyn eventually asked police to escort them inside. When the police refused, the students left.Joseph Scherschel—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Students Steve Posten, 17, and Jessalyn Gray, 18, wait tensely beside a cab while a crowd of whites taunts them outside Texarkana Junior College, Texarkana, Tex., 1956. Jessalyn eventually asked police to escort them inside. When the police refused, the students left.
Students Steve Posten, 17, and Jessalyn Gray, 18, wait tensely beside a cab while a crowd of whites taunts them outside
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Joseph Scherschel—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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How to Fool a Racist Mob: Lesson One

Sep 08, 2014

In 1956, LIFE photographer Joe Scherschel was in Texas, covering the struggle of two black teenagers trying to integrate Texarkana Junior College. Hundreds of white Texans, of all ages, were on hand to prevent the two young students, Steve Posten and Jessalyn Gray, from entering the school. And if the goons could intimidate Scherschel into handing over his film, so that pictures of their disgraceful behavior wouldn't be distributed around the globe—well, so much the better.

However, as Scherschel pointed out to John Loengard in a 1993 interview, sometimes it's not that difficult to trick a bunch of racists into believing that you're giving in to their demands, when in fact you're doing the opposite of what they want you to do:

I've never seen a meaner mob in my life than the one that surrounded [those two kids]. I felt nothing but sympathy for the students. I would shoot six to 10 frames and immediately change film in the camera. I'd put it in my left-hand pocket. I kept unexposed film in my right-hand pocket. These kids were literally run off by the mob. And the next thing said was, "Get the guy from the nigger-loving magazine." There were at least three Texas Rangers in that crowd, and not one of them lifted a finger. The mob came at me and they said, "We want your film."

I said, "Sure, you can have my film." I opened the camera. I had already changed the roll. I carefully pulled out the film to expose it and gave it to them. It was just a blank roll of film, but I wasn't going to have them develop it and have them come back at me for the real thing.

Now, don't get us wrong. We're not advising everyone to stand up to mobs of racist fools. It would be wonderful if people of good faith always stood up to bullies, fascists and other cretins. But let's be honest with ourselves: very few among us have the sort of moral or physical courage it takes to pull off that sort of thing. The two students in the photo above certainly did, and so did Joe Scherschel.

That said, we certainly do get a kick out of the notion of this LIFE photographer—"the guy from the nigger-loving magazine"—pretending to do exactly what these clowns told him to do, while all the time he planned to take and publish a picture as powerful and as damning as the one featured here.

Here's to you, Joe Scherschel. And Steve Posten. And Jessalyn Gray. And all the others who join the struggle—especially when it means staring down the mob.

[Buy John Loengard's book, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw]

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