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The Soiling of the Old Glory

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It was a photograph that shocked a city; it bumped the death of Howard Hughes off the frontpages all over the state. Entire books were written about it. Iconic Photos looks back at its contact sheets. 

Stanley Forman was early for his shift at the Herald American on April 5th, 1976 and he decided to head out to an anti-busing demonstration at Boston City Hall that another journalist was already covering. It was already two years into a desegregated school-busing in Massachusetts, but the protests in favor of the old system were still raging.

Forman managed to capture an episode that was especially violent: a black attorney named Theodore Landsmark — a Yale graduate who worked for Michael Dukakis no less — was attacked by a group of white teenagers as he exited the city hall. One of the attackers, Joseph Rakes, charged towards Landsmark using the American flag and its flagpole as a lance.

His camera motor jammed twice before he captured the iconic photo in his last frame — it was a poignant image; two millennia of history flashed past his lens, from Longinus spearing Christ at Golgotha to flag-rising at Iwo Jima. The next day, it appeared on the frontpages of the Washington PostChicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle, among many others, and inside The New York Times.

A particularly violent retaliation took place the next day in Roxbury where a white driver was beaten and left in a coma; and Boston was finally forced to comfort the realities. The busing crises continued on for another decade. Forman won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo, which he submitted under his editor’s suggested title, “The Soiling of Old Glory.” As for Rakes, he was quickly fired from his job and his life fell apart. He admitted that when he first saw the picture, he thought, “Who is that lunatic with the flag? Then I realized it was me.”

This column is merely a short reflection on an extremely agonizing event during a complicated era for the United States. For more information, go to here, here, here, or buy Louis Masur’s authoritative book on the subject.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm

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