The Soiling of the Old Glory, 1976

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.

Forman recalled the day:

Anti-busing proponent and City Counselor, Louise Day Hicks, had hosted a group of students in the Chambers for a salute to the flag, served with cookies and milk. Pouring onto the Plaza steps after the reception, this group of demonstrators confronted a second group of students invited to tour the Hall. Tempers flared and some shoving began.

I had a 135mm lens and motor drive on one camera and a 35mm on the other. As the shuffling began I switched my 35 mm lens to a 20 mm. Over my shoulder I saw a Black man (later identified as Ted Landsmark) approach the Plaza from Washington and State and immediately thought he would be a target.

I felt like I was watching a Clint Eastwood movie, witnessing the slow-motion moment when the gauntlet is tossed before igniting the outbreak of violence. I started taking photos with the 20 mm lens. Detecting a sound I realized the motor wasn’t transporting film. I stopped shooting continuous shots and pressed the button for one frame at a time. 

The victim, Ted Landsmark, was transported to the Mass General Hospital. The crowd worked it’s way to the Federal Court House in Post Office Square. Once there I was told to run my shots into the Herald by reporter, Joe Driscoll. I did not grasp the magnitude of what I captured until later that day.

AP and the Globe had tried to cover it from a bad angle and before the real action began. I had the best shots. The demonstration had come to me. I took my chances and developed my film in the unreliable Kodak Versamat at the office, known to shred film like a pasta-maker. It developed just the way it should have. 

The editors were very frightened by the series of images captured on my contact sheet. It was a volatile situation, it was busing, and this was Boston.  As fate would have it, Howard Hughes had died that day. Appeased by sharing front-page space with other big news, they no longer feared showing the racism that rang out that day on the top of page one.  

On the contact sheets, you can see where his camera motor had 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.

The next day, it appeared on the frontpages of many newspapers, including Forman’s own.

The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle had it at top center, above the fold; in the Chicago Tribune, it was below the headline about Howard Hughes’s death. The Hartford Courant had it the top right, and the New York Times had it inside the paper with the caption “Violence in Boston.”

When ABC national television news covered the cover, the camera panned across the photograph. Later in the year, the Socialist Workers Party used the image as a presidential election poster: “200 Years of Racism Is Enough!”

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.

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0 thoughts on “The Soiling of the Old Glory, 1976

  1. Pingback: My Blog
  2. Ted Landsmark collected photographs before the incident. I think he owned a “Moonrise” or another iconic Adams print before the value skyrocketed. One of the ironies of the incident was that they could not have picked a more sophisticated, articulate person, someone ready to speak to the press any minute, night or day the attack with a flack: someone who was more pleased by the incident in terms of pr value than shocked by it.
    Sheppard Ferguson

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