By James Ralph
America, according to Barack Obama, has been "stuck" in a "racial stalemate" for many years. In his recent speech on race relations, the U.S. senator from Illinois noted the palpable anger among blacks over the obstacles they have faced in this country because of their race. He acknowledged as well the resentments within "segments of the white community" over policies designed to benefit others but seemingly at their expense.
It is difficult to identify a more telling emblem of that "racial stalemate" over the past few decades than the Boston busing crisis. When in the mid-1970s the federal courts ordered busing to redress the long-standing policies of the city's school committee to minimize the interaction of black and white students in the public schools, many working-class whites erupted.
In April 1976, Theodore Landsmark, a black lawyer, learned firsthand of the ferocity of racial tensions in Boston. On his way to an affirmative-action meeting in City Hall, the Yale-educated Landsmark inadvertently ran into an anti-busing rally. When a contingent of the white anti-busers saw the well-dressed black man, they attacked him.
Stanley Forman, a photographer for the Boston Herald American, who was late to cover the rally, captured the assault on camera. One of his pictures showed a white teenager from South Boston—Joseph Rakes—trying to spear a battered Landsmark with an American flag. That photograph, "The Soiling of Old Glory," soon became one of the most widely known images in modern American history.
Louis A. Masur's compelling new book, "The Soiling of Old Glory," is the first comprehensive study of the making of that photograph and its significance. It offers a good overview of the causes and unfolding of the Boston busing crisis. While it does not break new ground in its explanation of this crisis—which was been the subject of a rich array of books, including the late J. Anthony Lukas' remarkable "Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families"—it does make clear that the civil rights struggle was not confined to the South.
The book's most important contribution is its analysis of why the photo was so immediately startlingly and why it continues to resonate into our own time. Here Masur, who teaches at Trinity College in Hartford, Ct., explains why a single image is more potent than a moving picture. Video, Masur writes, "tends to lessen the dramatic image, whereas stills isolate and augment it, perhaps even create it."
He also analyzes the photo as a composition. He comments on the effect of the slight blurriness of the image and the interplay of light and dark (the dark clothes of the assailant, for instance, accent the brighter American flag). The strong vertical lines of the cobblestone street, he writes, "direct our eyes from foreground to middle ground, where the horizontal action is taking place." He notes as well how the cropping of Forman's original image (slicing off much of the foreground) ensured that the published photograph was more contained, more intense and more shocking.
The potency of "The Soiling of Old Glory," Masur skillfully explains, also flows from its dialogue with well-known historical and cultural markers in American life. In the background of Forman's photo is the Old State House. It was near this building in 1770 that the Boston Massacre unfolded. Paul Revere immortalized this assault on freedom-loving colonists in a famous engraving. Later in the mid-19th Century, black abolitionist William Cooper Nell refreshed Revere's engraving by highlighting the death of Crispus Attucks, the patriotic African-American sailor.
And then there is Joe Rosenthal's "Flag Raising on Mt. Suribachi, 1945," arguably the most famous photo ever taken. Rosenthal's image of a group of Marines planting an American flag in the midst of the bloody battle for Iwo Jima during World War II captured the country's determination to fight for democracy. "The Soiling of Old Glory," snapped in the historic cradle of American liberty during the bicentennial year, directly challenged America's self-definition as a virtuous country devoted to freedom.
Masur writes in a refreshingly direct manner. He shuns specialized, academic language even as he interprets "The Soiling of Old Glory" and launches into an extended discussion of the role of the flag in American culture across the decades. He knows, moreover, the power of real-life narratives. He never loses sight of the four individuals—Forman, the photographer; James Kelly, the anti-busing rally organizer; Rakes, the assailant; and Landsmark, the victim—whose paths crossed. While he does not offer a deep explanation of the motivations of the anti-busers, his judicious coverage of Kelly and Rakes is a great strength of the book.
Masur follows the lives of the principal protagonists up to the present. Their odysseys suggest Boston is a more tolerant city today than it was. Forman won his second Pulitzer Prize for the "The Soiling of Old Glory," and though given an offer to join The New York Times, he could not leave his native city. In the early 1980s, he jumped to videography to work for one of Boston's TV stations, and ever since he has used his craft to reveal his city to a broader audience.
Kelly, who recently died, devoted his life to serving South Boston, the working-class district of the city that most resisted court-ordered busing. After his election to the City Council in 1983, he gained the respect of other politicians from across the city for his tireless advocacy on behalf of his constituents. Masur contends that Kelly, who never hesitated to voice his suspicions of grand liberal projects, came to support equal rights for all.
Rakes has endured the bumpiest road since 1976. Convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon for the beating of Landsmark, he toiled in minimum-wage jobs for years and even had to flee Boston because of another altercation with the law. He returned to his hometown in 1988 and slowly built a fulfilling life. He married, bought a home north of the city and worked in construction.
While Rakes remains the most enigmatic of the central players, he has sought to move beyond the defining episode in his life of which he has been ashamed for many years. Masur relates that when in 2001 The Boston Globe ran a feature on the attack on Landsmark, Rakes asked all the black workers on his job site to gather so he could tell them he was at the center of one of the most famous racial assaults in American history.
After the beating, Landsmark did not follow the advice of friends and leave Boston for a friendlier place. He did what he could to make sure the city faced the cancer of racism in its midst. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, he worked for Mayor Ray Flynn (himself a critic of court-ordered busing in the 1970s) and then Mayor Thomas Menino to improve race relations in the city. Today Landsmark is president of the Boston Architectural College, and though he knows he is a public symbol of the battle over busing, he wants Bostonians to focus on the possibilities of the present and the future. The City of Boston has not used race as a factor in school assignments since 1999, and Landsmark knows that parents desire diversity but above all value quality education for their sons and daughters. Landsmark says he forgave his attackers long ago.
In the end, according to Masur, "The Soiling of Old Glory," which captured "an instant of unthinkable racial hatred" and initially sparked "turmoil and self-scrutiny," has helped lead—as shown in the trajectory of the lives of four central protagonists—"to progress and healing." Masur even uncovers a redemptive theme buried in Forman's photo; the drama captured is more complex than commonly understood. Not only did Rakes never actually strike Landsmark with his flag, but one of the white men who seemed to be attacking the black lawyer was actually James Kelly trying to halt the beating.
Boston is a more diverse city—especially with the recent influx of Hispanics and Asians—than it was 30 years ago. It is also a city of many people without first-hand experience of the searing racial animosity of the 1970s. Bostonians, Masur implies, are ready to break the "racial stalemate" Barack Obama has aptly said has kept Americans from working together for their collective benefit.
The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked AmericaBy Louis P. MasurBloomsbury, 224 pages, $24.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun