A Flag, a Busing Fight, and a Famous Photograph

Louis Masur talks about the legacy of The Soiling of Old Glory, a picture that shocked the nation.


On April 5, 1976, the year of the American bicentennial, Stanley Forman, a photographer with the now defunct Boston Herald American, took 1/250th of a second out of his day to take a picture that remains a defining illustration of race in America. At the time, Boston was in turmoil over court-ordered busing, a scheme that forcibly bused students to schools often far from their homes in an effort to diversify schools. Opposition was strong and sparked a protest at City Hall where white demonstrators ended up severely beating a prominent black attorney, Ted Landsmark. Louis Masur teaches a course on visual culture at Trinity College and has written a biography of the photo, The Soiling of Old Glory: The Photograph That Shocked America. He spoke to U.S. News this week. Excerpts:

Why is The Soiling of Old Glory so iconic?

It's an image that's always fascinated me and obsessed me. It's one of those pictures that instantaneously became iconic; even more so because it was taken in Boston in the year of the bicentennial. The idea of a student protester using an American flag as a weapon against an unarmed black man, in that city, in that year, was just something absolutely terrifying and horrifying. People immediately understood it, and it became a symbol of all the worst kinds of racial hatred imaginable and proof that the civil rights movement of the 1960s hadn't achieved all its goals. Why was the location so important?

The fact that the North had always been so smug about its own racial history, that it always viewed segregation and racial hatred as a southern phenomenon. This photo helped show that it was not just a southern phenomenon but an American phenomenon. The notion that Boston, the cradle of liberty, could be like Birmingham, Alabama, came as a shock, especially by 1976 when many people assumed that there had been victory for the civil rights movement. The image doesn't invent the idea that Boston was a racist city; it crystallizes and epitomizes it. And for the last 30-plus years, Boston has been trying to overcome the legacy of this photograph. Indeed, the Boston Globe editorialized that the inauguration of Deval Patrick perhaps finally washes away the legacy of 1976. Yet the photograph is also misunderstood.

Photographs trick our eye because our brains want to think that they are seeing the whole and absolute truth. This photo is only one moment in time and it both captures that moment and also deceives, because what is going on in it is not immediately clear. The figure holding Ted Landsmark is not holding him up for the kill. The man, Jim Kelly, one of the protesters, is actually trying to get him out of harm's way. He was one of the leaders of the antibusing movement. That someone is coming to his aid changes the meaning of the image and largely the possibilities of reconciliation. And the attacker too is misunderstood.

Joseph Rakes, who is holding the flag, is also misrepresented. It appears as though he is using the flagpole as a spear to plunge it at Landsmark. In fact, he's actually swinging or waving it across at him. Indeed, the flag actually missed Landsmark on that swing. The picture does show the fact that a black man was beaten with an American flag, but when we go deeper we see there is much more going on. As a culture we are very visually oriented but not very visually literate. We take images far too literally when, in fact, images need to be interrogated and thought about. When Rakes first saw the picture, he was riding on a bus to work the next day. He saw a guy holding a newspaper with the picture on the front page. "I saw the image and thought, 'Who is that lunatic with the flag?' " he told me. "Then I realized it was me." The composition evokes immediately the images of the Boston Massacre.

There are connections to the images of the Boston Massacre, and that connection was made at the time. That notion of visual memory gives it power. There's also the element of the flag and the desecration of the flag, which was quite powerful in 1976. There was a tragic sense in the country of how far things had fallen from the image of the Marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima.