Sunday, August 2, 2009

Story of a Photograph

39. The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America by Louis P. Masur

When I was assigned this book for History of Boston, I was surprised to discover it was first published in 2008. Moreover, I had never heard of the subject of discussion, a picture that exemplified and exacerbated race tensions in 1970s Boston. If you have never seen it before either, here it is.

It's a striking picture, and Masur compares it to other iconic pictures in America's history; Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre and the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. He also compares it to Jesus on the cross. I did not find any of those comparisons overblown. If anything, Masur defends his comparisons more than is necessary (okay, Jesus on the cross might be a Bit much).

Masur does just what he sets out to do, he tells the story of the picture. He gives the background of the busing crisis, particularly in Boston, but also across the nation, that spiked the outbreak of racial tension. Parents, particularly in working-class Irish South Boston, did not want their kids bused farther away to worse schools in predominantly African-American Roxbury. Each side perceived the other as criminal and dangerous. Richer whites could flee to the suburbs, but Southies were stuck. A court decision forced busing in Boston. Masur discusses all the characters involved, though he concentrates largely on the photographer, Stanley Forman, and the victim, Ted Landsmark.

Landsmark was at the time a successful lawyer on his way to an affirmative action meeting with the mayor. He walked into an anti-busing protest by poor, working-class kids from South Boston. One student, Joseph Rakes, had brought an American flag to the rally. When Landsmark was spotted, he was held down, punched, and kicked by other students in the group. As the group's leader intervened to stop the violence and help Landsmark from the ground, Rakes swung the flag at him, and was convicted of beating him with it (Rakes claims just to have brushed him).

Masur describes the incident from the points of view of the photographer, the group leader, the victim, and in an Afterword, the attacker. He was able to interview them all for the book. He also discusses race riots, marches, and public responses in the aftermath of the attack. I am surprised I never heard about this, especially since my parents must have been alive at the time, and even though they weren't in Boston, I'm sure they must know about it. It is frightening to realize how close something like this is to my lifetime. Especially since I now live in Roxbury, which is still predominantly African-American, though Masur claims that the people here now are different or were born after the controversy.

Anyway, if you are interested in learning about the incident and what really happened, I think this is a good book to read. It sometimes gets bogged down in technical details or digressions about more general busing or race related issues, but on the whole, it stays close to the story. Learning about this definitely made me think.

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