The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged the Norfolk school district’s decision to reject all 151 applicants in court. According to the Virginian Pilot, interest in attending the white-based Norfolk schools began to dwindle as the court case dragged on, bringing the number of applicants to 87 and finally 17, who became known as Norfolk 17.
Others saw the tests and interview requirements as designed to disqualify them, so they abandoned their quest to attend these schools, while the courts also denied their right to education there.
Cousins was one of the few students whose applications were accepted, and she was one of five students who were assigned to schools where they were the only Black students. They postponed attending Maury High School after an all-white school ban prohibiting Black students from enrolling in 1958. On February 2, 1959, Cousins and the other Black students were given permission to begin their education.
However, the 29 steps Cousins took when he walked into Maury High School have become the iconic image of Virginia’s desegregating schools. When he arrived at Maury High School, he was met with an unwelcome reception, with a crowd of white students staring at him in silence as his mother escorted him through the doors. Journalists recorded every move he made until he sat in the school auditorium.
J.T. McClenny took the photograph of Cousins sitting alone at the front of the room, his gaze fixed on the front. His face and demeanor were expressionless as white students stared at him from the back of the auditorium, several rows of seats empty behind him.
It promised to be difficult, but Cousins refused to give up even as classmates sidelined and ignored him, while others provoked him to fight. He was spit at, and some students burned a cross in front of him on the school grounds.
Cousins Louis Jr, his son, stated in an interview that his father went through a lot but persevered. The image of Cousins became so imposing that one could not ignore the message of what Black students had to endure while attending white schools in the face of racial inequality, according to Jeffrey Littlejohn, a history professor at Sam Houston State University who co-authored “Elusive Equality,” a book about Norfolk’s desegregation fight that features the photo of Cousins on its cover.
He admitted that it must have been difficult for one Black kid to sit in an environment that did not welcome him, but he persisted in his pursuit of his dreams. According to one of Cousins’ friends, Lula Sears Rogers, what kept him going was seeing the bigger picture of what his struggle would achieve for other children in the future.
He stated that Cousins frequently stated that it is a false impression that he integrated white schools; he stated that he desegregated those schools. The disparity between those lines was startling.
Cousins Jr. said he realized the enormity of his father’s ordeal when they visited Norfolk for a commemorative event. He recalled his father being treated like a celebrity.
Cousins died at the age of 76 after suffering from heart failure in a San Antonio hospital.