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Soiling of old glory

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Soiling of old glory

  1. 1. Slate Magazine’s slideshow on “The Soiling of Old Glory”
  2. 2. In his recent speech on race, Barack Obama spoke about the legacy of racial hatred and resentment in America. One of the events he probably had in mind was the controversy over busing that erupted in Boston in the mid-1970s. A single photograph epitomized for Americans the meaning and horror of the crisis. On April 5, 1976, at an anti-busing rally at City Hall Plaza, Stanley Forman, a photographer for the Boston Herald-American, captured a teenager as he transformed the American flag into a weapon directed at the body of a black man. It is the ultimate act of desecration, performed in the year of the bicentennial and in the shadows of Boston's Old State House. Titled The Soiling of Old Glory, the photograph appeared in newspapers around the country and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977. The image shattered the illusion that racial segregation and hatred were strictly a Southern phenomenon. For many, Boston now seemed little different than Birmingham. In 2006, when Deval Patrick became the first black governor of Massachusetts, the Boston Globe expressed hope that his inauguration would "finally wash away the shameful stain of that day in 1976." Last June, however, a Supreme Court ruling forbade school districts from assigning students based on their race, and Patrick's administration has been forced to find ways to avoid dismantling desegregation programs throughout Massachusetts. The issue, copyright Stanley Forman and the photograph, continue to haunt Boston, and the nation.
  3. 3. In September 1974, a federal court ordered that the busing of students was one of the remedies to be used in desegregating Boston's public schools. Protests and violence erupted in predominantly white South Boston. Opponents denounced "forced busing" and took every opportunity to organize and march in opposition. By April 1976, these rallies had become commonplace, and Forman, dispatched by the Herald-American to take a photo of the latest one, was in no rush to get to City Hall. Before heading over, he stopped first to visit his girlfriend, who worked nearby. The delay rewarded him. Because he was behind the pack of protesters and reporters, he had a long view of the melee. Using a Nikon with a 20-millimeter lens, he steadied himself and snapped. The motor drive froze, so he switched to manual, which forced him to take individual shots of the action. He didn't know what he had until he got into the darkroom. Later, some commentators would criticize the photographers on hand that day for not coming to the victim's aid. But in a sense, with his camera, Forman had. Photograph © Stanley J. Forman.
  4. 4. Forman was already an accomplished photographer. The previous year, he had followed a firetruck to the scene of a fire in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood. He instinctively ran to the back of the building, where he saw a fireman climbing down from the roof onto a fifth-floor fire escape to rescue a 19-year-old girl and her 2-year-old goddaughter. As a firetruck extended its ladder toward the girls and their would-be rescuer, the fire escape collapsed. The firefighter pulled himself to safety, but the woman and child plunged to the ground. Forman kept shooting, then looked away. Still shaking, he developed his pictures and found this chilling shot of woman and child in free fall. (Forman would learn later that the woman had died but the child had survived.) The photograph would lead to stricter fire escape regulations, and it would win Forman the first of his two consecutive Pulitzers Photograph © Stanley J. Forman.
  5. 5. Before the busing protestors poured out onto the plaza, they had gathered in city council chambers, where they were greeted warmly by Louise Day Hicks, the city council president and a leading opponent of busing. She served the students hot chocolate and then led them in reciting the pledge of allegiance. Joseph Rakes, a South Boston teen, had grabbed the family flag before heading out to the rally that morning. He stands, hand-over- heart, with his classmates and friends. The students were angry because their parents were angry—because their neighborhood felt under assault, and because for nearly two years, ever since the federal judge had ordered busing, life had not been the same: classes disrupted, police at the schools, national media in the streets. That anger would soon be directed at Theodore Landsmark, a lawyer hurrying to a meeting at City Hall on behalf of the Contractor's Association for which he worked. Courtesy the Boston Herald. Photograph originally published in the Boston Herald-American.
  6. 6. Spotting Landsmark, one protester yelled a racial epithet. Suddenly a student stepped forward and punched him. Another hit him as well. He was kicked, and he fell to the ground. As he rose, Rakes came at him with the flag. The entire incident lasted 15 or 20 seconds. Though he was at City Hall on routine business that day, Landsmark, a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, was a veteran of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. He had marched from Selma to Montgomery and attended King's funeral. At the hospital, following his beating, he made certain that his broken nose was bandaged in such a way as to draw maximum attention. He held a press conference two days after the assault. In a remarkable speech, he said he did not blame those who attacked him. Indeed, he said he identified with them as poor, working-class victims of a system that used race to mask deeper economic divisions in American society. "We continue to need jobs and housing and high quality education and human decency" for all people, he said. Courtesy the Boston Herald. Photograph originally published in the Boston Herald-American.
  7. 7. Forman's photograph appeared on the front page of the Herald-American. (At the time, the quarto-size paper was owned by the Hearst Corp. and competed with the Globe for hard-news stories; it would be transformed into a tabloid after it was sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1982.) Forman's image also appeared in newspapers across the country, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. But it almost didn't appear at all. The Herald-American editors vigorously debated whether publishing the photograph would further inflame an already explosive racial situation that had made national headlines for nearly two years. They feared reprisals and increased violence. In the end, they published, believing the image was too important to suppress. Had Howard Hughes not died the same day, the photograph might have occupied even more space above the fold. Courtesy the Boston Herald. Photograph originally published in the Boston Herald-American.
  8. 8. The photograph had an instant and profound impact. At the Boston State House, legislators debated a resolution condemning the attack. It passed by voice vote, with some representatives choosing not to vote. Mayor Kevin White, who had witnessed the assault from his office window, and Gov. Michael Dukakis denounced racism and mob violence. One minister warned that war was being declared against the black citizens of Boston, while other religious leaders called for calm. The opponents of busing did not defend the attack, but they did blame the media for one-sided reporting, saying that the news seldom reported busing-related incidents in which whites were the victims. An outburst of retaliatory violence led to the brutal beating of Richard Poleet, a car mechanic who was driving through mostly black Roxbury. An anti-violence march organized by the mayor drew thousands, though not the leaders of either the black caucus or the anti-busing activists. Later in the year, the Socialist Workers Party used Forman's photograph as a presidential election poster: "200 Years of Racism Is Enough." The socialist candidate received the most votes that year in the history of the party. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal. Courtesy the Library of Congress.
  9. 9. In looking at Forman's photograph, viewers made connections to other images, but in particular to Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre. The visual parallels are striking. Both images depict enclosed spaces from which there is no escape. Both contain powerful horizontal lines—the flag, the rifles—that guide the eye. Indeed, the Landsmark incident occurred within shouting distance of the site of the Boston Massacre, which counted a black sailor named Crispus Attucks among its victims. It wasn't long before Landsmark was compared to Attucks, held up as a 20th-century victim of the struggle against oppression. Ebony asked what Attucks would have thought of the assault and concluded that "he would have understood the racism ... but it is doubtful he would have understood the insensitivity of public officials." Landsmark himself made the connection as well, saying to a reporter after the incident that the assault occurred not far from where "Crispus Attucks ... got his." Courtesy the Library of Congress.
  10. 10. The Soiling of Old Glory was also compared to Joe Rosenthal's photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. Often considered the finest spot-news photograph ever taken, and certainly the most widely reproduced, Rosenthal's photograph stood as a symbol of all that was glorious about the United States: six faceless men united in effort, their exertion a perfect ballet of balance and form. No less a figure than Sen. Ted Kennedy made the connection a few weeks after Forman's photograph appeared: "There are two pictures in which the American flag has appeared that have made the most powerful impact on me. The first was that of Iwo Jima in World War II. The second was that shown here in Massachusetts two weeks ago in which the American flag appeared to have been used in the attempted garroting of an individual solely on the basis of his color." Photograph by Joe Rosenthal. Courtesy the Library of Congress.
  11. 11. African-Americans have often sought to show their patriotism by taking ownership of the flag. It is no accident that Barack Obama delivered his speech on race with flags displayed in the background. During the civil rights movement, activists waved the flag as a symbol of justice and equality and embraced it as representing their struggle. Forman's photograph disturbed viewers for many reasons, but none more so than the use of the flag to puncture the dream of inclusion. Unfortunately, that dream is still far from being fulfilled. On Sept. 1, 2005, Associated Press photographer Eric Gay took this shot of 84-year-old Milvertha Hendricks waiting in the rain outside the Convention Center in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her brow is furrowed, and her eyes stare blankly forward. The fingers of her right hand slip beneath the fabric that provides her only shelter. The flag has become a mourning shawl. She appears to be waiting for deliverance and wondering whether it will ever come. Photograph by Eric Gay/AP.

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