The Soiling of Old Glory:
The Story of a Photograph
That Shocked America
By Louis P. Masur
Bloomsbury, 224 pp.,
For Herald American news photographer Stanley Forman, April 5, 1976, began as just another day. The news in Boston, as it had been for months, involved protests over court-ordered school desegregation. On assignment, Forman headed to City Hall Plaza, where high school students from South Boston were gathering for another demonstration.
The photographer was in no hurry. On his way he stopped to purchase an apple for his girlfriend, who worked nearby.
What happened next, however, would define several lives. A well-dressed black man on his way to City Hall for a meeting on minority hiring practices was set upon by a few agitated students. As a skirmish broke out and the man tried to get away, one protester who had been holding an American flag suddenly thrust the flagpole at the victim.
Forman, having already snapped about a dozen shots of the scene, caught an image of a young white student apparently attempting to spear the stumbling black man with the flag. Bostonians past and present are all too familiar with the resulting photograph, which ran on the Herald American's front page the next day. Appalling in its unmistakable symbolism, it immediately came to define - and simplify - all of the complex values, principles, and antagonisms that had been roiling in the city for years. Boston, the rest of the world was now convinced, was an indescribably racist town.
That Forman performed such an unexceptional task just before taking this historic photo - buying his girlfriend an apple - is the kind of detail that makes Louis P. Masur's book on the incident, "The Soiling of Old Glory," really come to life. Like Forman, who would win a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph, the subjects in the frame were not just role players. Ted Landsmark, the young lawyer and activist in the tan three-piece suit, and Joseph Rakes, the 17-year-old demonstrator in dark clothes, were not mere cardboard figures - one representing misplaced patriotism, the other the tragedy of second-class citizenship. These were real people, with singular stories, and the author works hard to free them from the perpetuity of the frozen image.
Yet the photo would have none of its power were it not for its uncanny connotations - white on black, Boston's old State House in the background, the flag being used as a weapon (in the year of the bicentennial, no less). The author's job, then, was twofold: to describe the incident and its surrounding circumstances, and to treat the photograph as a symbolic artifact, subject to critical analysis and contextualization. He succeeds on both counts, with some qualification. Beginning with a re-creation of the attack, he then backs up to summarize the volatility of the busing debate in Boston. In the eyes of opponents, he notes, Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.'s controversial ruling to enforce desegregation was "comparable to the tyranny of Parliament and King two hundred years earlier."
Subsequent chapters consider the photo itself, which Masur compares with Paul Revere's famous engraving of the Boston Massacre and Joe Rosenthal's immortal World War II photo of the flag-raising Marines, and a brief history of the potent iconography of the American flag. In such a slender volume, parts of this section in particular begin to feel like digression.
But the book gets right back on track with the author's assessment of the immediate and long-term aftermath of the photo's publication. Among other things, as he points out, it inspired the late J. Anthony Lukas to begin work on "Common Ground," the writer's masterful narrative of the busing crisis.
"My life has been a lot more interesting than the twenty-second moment captured in that picture," Landsmark tells the author. The committed activist, a mayoral appointee under Ray Flynn and Tom Menino and now president of the Boston Architectural College, emerges as a true hero. Born in Kansas and raised in East Harlem, Landsmark had, the author writes, every reason to flee Boston after the assault, "every reason to be angry and unforgiving." Instead, "he stayed and served with distinction."
As much as he tried over the years to move beyond the photograph, Landsmark has recently come to terms with it, the author reports. He now keeps a print of it in his office, hanging near another recent acquisition - the 1856 lithograph that depicts the free black man Crispus Attucks, first to die in the American Revolution, at the center of the Boston Massacre.
Rakes, on the other hand, remains an enigma. The busing debate, as he told the Globe in 2001, stirred blind fury: "For the kids that were my age, it always just seemed so one-sided."
Convicted of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, he received a suspended sentence and two years' probation. After graduating from South Boston Heights Academy, he allegedly assaulted his sister's boyfriend with a lead pipe. When the young man died, Rakes went underground, returning to Boston only after the prosecution's case had dried up.
In an afterword, Masur describes his anguish over contacting the "flag kid," who finally calls while the author is exercising at the gym. As it turns out, Rakes never actually connected with Landsmark when he swung the flag at him; the victim's nose was broken by another assailant's punch. As Rakes tells the author, he regrets that his conviction was based on the implication that the blow had landed.
"Life goes on," he says.
After marrying and settling into a home up the New England coast, Rakes commuted 100 miles each way to a construction job on the Big Dig. Taking a bit of his grandmother's advice, he took a dirty job no one else would want: He specialized in hazardous waste.
James Sullivan is the author of the forthcoming book "The Hardest Working Man," an account of James Brown's Boston Garden concert following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.