Slate Magazine’s slideshow on“The Soiling of Old Glory”
In his recent speech on race, Barack Obamaspoke about the legacy of racial hatred andresentment in America. One of the events heprobably had in mind was the controversy overbusing that erupted in Boston in the mid-1970s.A single photograph epitomized for Americansthe meaning and horror of the crisis. On April 5,1976, at an anti-busing rally at City Hall Plaza,Stanley Forman, a photographer for the BostonHerald-American, captured a teenager as hetransformed the American flag into a weapondirected at the body of a black man. It is theultimate act of desecration, performed in theyear of the bicentennial and in the shadows ofBostons Old State House. Titled The Soiling ofOld Glory, the photograph appeared innewspapers around the country and won thePulitzer Prize in 1977. The image shattered theillusion that racial segregation and hatred werestrictly a Southern phenomenon. For many,Boston now seemed little different thanBirmingham.In 2006, when Deval Patrick became the firstblack governor of Massachusetts, the BostonGlobe expressed hope that his inaugurationwould "finally wash away the shameful stain ofthat day in 1976." Last June, however, aSupreme Court ruling forbade school districtsfrom assigning students based on their race,and Patricks administration has been forced tofind ways to avoid dismantling desegregationprograms throughout Massachusetts. The issue, copyright Stanley Formanand the photograph, continue to haunt Boston,and the nation.
Before the busing protestors poured outonto the plaza, they had gathered in citycouncil chambers, where they weregreeted warmly by Louise Day Hicks, thecity council president and a leadingopponent of busing. She served thestudents hot chocolate and then led themin reciting the pledge of allegiance. JosephRakes, a South Boston teen, had grabbedthe family flag before heading out to therally that morning. He stands, hand-over-heart, with his classmates and friends. Thestudents were angry because their parentswere angry—because their neighborhoodfelt under assault, and because for nearlytwo years, ever since the federal judgehad ordered busing, life had not been thesame: classes disrupted, police at theschools, national media in the streets.That anger would soon be directed atTheodore Landsmark, a lawyer hurrying toa meeting at City Hall on behalf of theContractors Association for which heworked. Courtesy the Boston Herald. Photograph originally published in the Boston Herald-American.
Spotting Landsmark, one protester yelleda racial epithet. Suddenly a studentstepped forward and punched him.Another hit him as well. He was kicked,and he fell to the ground. As he rose,Rakes came at him with the flag. Theentire incident lasted 15 or 20 seconds.Though he was at City Hall on routinebusiness that day, Landsmark, a graduateof Yale College and Yale Law School, was aveteran of the civil rights struggles of the1960s. He had marched from Selma toMontgomery and attended Kings funeral.At the hospital, following his beating, hemade certain that his broken nose wasbandaged in such a way as to drawmaximum attention. He held a pressconference two days after the assault. In aremarkable speech, he said he did notblame those who attacked him. Indeed, hesaid he identified with them as poor,working-class victims of a system thatused race to mask deeper economicdivisions in American society. "Wecontinue to need jobs and housing andhigh quality education and humandecency" for all people, he said. Courtesy the Boston Herald. Photograph originally published in the Boston Herald-American.
Formans photograph appeared on thefront page of the Herald-American. (At thetime, the quarto-size paper was owned bythe Hearst Corp. and competed with theGlobe for hard-news stories; it would betransformed into a tabloid after it was soldto Rupert Murdoch in 1982.) Formansimage also appeared in newspapers acrossthe country, including the New York Times,the Washington Post, and the SanFrancisco Chronicle. But it almost didntappear at all. The Herald-American editorsvigorously debated whether publishing thephotograph would further inflame analready explosive racial situation that hadmade national headlines for nearly twoyears. They feared reprisals and increasedviolence. In the end, they published,believing the image was too important tosuppress. Had Howard Hughes not diedthe same day, the photograph might haveoccupied even more space above the fold. Courtesy the Boston Herald. Photograph originally published in the Boston Herald-American.
The photograph had an instant andprofound impact. At the Boston StateHouse, legislators debated a resolutioncondemning the attack. It passed by voicevote, with some representatives choosingnot to vote. Mayor Kevin White, who hadwitnessed the assault from his officewindow, and Gov. Michael Dukakisdenounced racism and mob violence. Oneminister warned that war was beingdeclared against the black citizens ofBoston, while other religious leaders calledfor calm. The opponents of busing did notdefend the attack, but they did blame themedia for one-sided reporting, saying thatthe news seldom reported busing-relatedincidents in which whites were the victims.An outburst of retaliatory violence led tothe brutal beating of Richard Poleet, a carmechanic who was driving through mostlyblack Roxbury. An anti-violence marchorganized by the mayor drew thousands,though not the leaders of either the blackcaucus or the anti-busing activists. Laterin the year, the Socialist Workers Partyused Formans photograph as apresidential election poster: "200 Years ofRacism Is Enough." The socialist candidatereceived the most votes that year in thehistory of the party. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal. Courtesy the Library of Congress.
In looking at Formans photograph,viewers made connections to otherimages, but in particular to Paul Reveresengraving of the Boston Massacre. Thevisual parallels are striking. Both imagesdepict enclosed spaces from which there isno escape. Both contain powerfulhorizontal lines—the flag, the rifles—thatguide the eye. Indeed, the Landsmarkincident occurred within shouting distanceof the site of the Boston Massacre, whichcounted a black sailor named CrispusAttucks among its victims. It wasnt longbefore Landsmark was compared toAttucks, held up as a 20th-century victimof the struggle against oppression. Ebonyasked what Attucks would have thought ofthe assault and concluded that "he wouldhave understood the racism ... but it isdoubtful he would have understood theinsensitivity of public officials." Landsmarkhimself made the connection as well,saying to a reporter after the incident thatthe assault occurred not far from where"Crispus Attucks ... got his." Courtesy the Library of Congress.
The Soiling of Old Glory was alsocompared to Joe Rosenthals photographof the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi.Often considered the finest spot-newsphotograph ever taken, and certainly themost widely reproduced, Rosenthalsphotograph stood as a symbol of all thatwas glorious about the United States: sixfaceless men united in effort, theirexertion a perfect ballet of balance andform. No less a figure than Sen. TedKennedy made the connection a fewweeks after Formans photographappeared: "There are two pictures inwhich the American flag has appeared thathave made the most powerful impact onme. The first was that of Iwo Jima inWorld War II. The second was that shownhere in Massachusetts two weeks ago inwhich the American flag appeared to havebeen used in the attempted garroting ofan individual solely on the basis of hiscolor." Photograph by Joe Rosenthal. Courtesy the Library of Congress.
African-Americans have often sought toshow their patriotism by taking ownershipof the flag. It is no accident that BarackObama delivered his speech on race withflags displayed in the background. Duringthe civil rights movement, activists wavedthe flag as a symbol of justice and equalityand embraced it as representing theirstruggle. Formans photograph disturbedviewers for many reasons, but none moreso than the use of the flag to puncture thedream of inclusion. Unfortunately, thatdream is still far from being fulfilled. OnSept. 1, 2005, Associated Pressphotographer Eric Gay took this shot of84-year-old Milvertha Hendricks waiting inthe rain outside the Convention Center inNew Orleans in the aftermath of HurricaneKatrina. Her brow is furrowed, and hereyes stare blankly forward. The fingers ofher right hand slip beneath the fabric thatprovides her only shelter. The flag hasbecome a mourning shawl. She appears tobe waiting for deliverance and wonderingwhether it will ever come. Photograph by Eric Gay/AP.