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.


Which was also a misleading image.

Yeah, misleading is the right word. That picture, too, requires more work than simply accepting what one sees at face value. The newspaper doesn't encourage deeper reading beyond a one-sentence caption.

We have this idea that images illustrate the story but are not in and of themselves the story. There are only the rare occasions where the photograph is the story. I think we've become savvier about reading images and scrutinizing them, in some cases. Why is there more scrutiny?

In the digital age, images are instantaneous and ubiquitous. There are dangers with doctoring photos, of course. But the ability to disseminate those images is staggering. It's only been a little over 100 years that we've had the ability to copy and share photographs to a large extent. Whether it's Katrina, 9/11, or Abu Ghraib, we have come to understand events in a far more visual way than we have in the past. People have realized that they cannot simply accept photographs unfiltered, that there's often much more going on outside the frame. Would this picture be received differently today?

It would still have a great impact. It would be instantly analyzed and dissected. How many years did it take for Joe Rosenthal's photograph of Iwo Jima to be fully understood? The great photographs of Dorothy Lang are just now being understood in their context. I still think that if this photograph came out today it would spark debate like Barack Obama's speech on race did, to a certain extent. What was the reaction at the time?

I argue that after this photograph appears, the opposition begins to die down in Boston. In the immediate aftermath there was a racial violence in retaliation, where black youths beat up whites. Indeed, the editors of the Boston Herald American considered not publishing it. They feared it would cause race riots. It would have received even more attention, but Howard Hughes died that day and this picture went below the fold on the front page. To this day, Stanley Forman, the photographer, is still pissed off at Howard Hughes for dying on that day. How did it get the title?

When they submitted it for the Pulitzer Prize, an editor came up with the name "The Soiling of Old Glory," which I think is just the pitch-perfect title. What's been the legacy?

People still see this image as the benchmark against which Boston and the rest of the nation will be measured in terms of race relations. People look back at lynching photographs and say that that doesn't happen anymore. But I don't think many people look at this image and say that it can't happen again. If anything, the picture has grown in value as the flag has become a more important symbol. You can learn a lot about America by looking at Joe Rosenthal's image of Iwo Jima, Forman's image of Rakes and Landsmark, and Tom Franklin's photo of the firefighters raising the flag at ground zero in New York. I've just learned that Ice Cube wants to put The Soiling of Old Glory on the cover of his new album.