Scholar: Photo that shocked America was misinterpreted





It was three months before the Bicentennial and a group of high school students in Boston were saying the Pledge of Allegiance. One of them held a large American flag. But this was not the commonplace ritual of citizenship that it might sound. The teenagers, all of them white, were just as swept up as their parents in the protests over court-ordered desegregation of the Boston public schools; and much of the rhetoric swirling around the anti-busing movement appealed to the old patriotic tropes of resistance to tyranny, defense of the rights of the citizen, and so on. The kids who milled around in front of City Hall in Boston were enjoying their chance to share in the Spirit of ‘76 while also skipping class on a Monday morning.

The people in the anti-busing movement were not, they often insisted, racists. It so happened that a young African-American lawyer named Ted Landsmark had a meeting at City Hall that morning to discuss minority hiring in construction jobs. He turned the corner and walked into a scene that would be recorded for posterity by Stanley Forman, a photojournalist for The Boston Herald American. In a picture that won Forman his second Pulitzer Prize in as many years, we see Landsmark in the right-hand half of the image. Dressed in a three-piece suit, he is the only black person in the crowd. But what dominates the scene is the teenager who had been holding the American flag a little earlier, during the Pledge, and now wields it as a weapon, seeming to drive it like a lance into Landsman’s body. Forman later titled his photograph “The Soiling of Old Glory.”

Frozen in mid-action, the image is brutal. But what makes it especially so is the expression on the kid’s face – a look of pure hatred and rage, his teeth showing, his upper lip curled in what seems to be (according to some research in affect theory) the universal physical manifestation of disgust. Other people in the crowd look on with what seems to be interest or even pleasure. It appears that nobody is ready to help Landsman. A man standing just behind the lawyer seems to be holding him, so that kid with the flagstaff can get a clear shot.

But according to Louis P. Masur in The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America, just published by Bloomsbury Press, the picture is a misleading in that regard. Masur – a professor of American institutions and values at Trinity College, in Connecticut – analyzed the other images the photographer shot that day and finds a different story unfolding.

“The man who, in a a previous image, is in motion racing to the scene has arrived and is grabbing Landsmark,” writes Masur. “It would appear that he has joined the fray to get in his punches and, worse yet, is pinioning Landsmark’s arms so that the flag bearer has a clear line of attack. In fact, the person holding Landsmark is Jim Kelly, one of the adult organizers of the protest, and he has raced in not to bind Landsmark but to save him from further violence.... He dashed in to try to break up the fight. In another photograph taken a moment later, he can be seen holding his arms out wide trying to keep the protesters back as Landsmark stumbles to safety.”

Knowing this, writes Masur, “changes our understanding of the photograph.”



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