Louis Bayard: Flagging America's racial divide

Roundup: Talking About History

It was nothing more than a minor skirmish, to hear many of the parties tell it. Beautiful spring day ... couple hundred high-school kids massing outside City Hall ... a few tempers flare ... what's the big deal?

After all, in that spring of '76, tempers were flaring all across Boston. Two years earlier, U.S. District Judge Arthur Garrity had ordered the city to desegregate its schools through busing, and now kids from mostly black Roxbury were being forced to share classrooms with kids from mostly white South Boston, and the "Southies" didn't like it one bit. Boycotts and protests followed in short order, and when a crowd of white students descended on City Hall Plaza on April 5, it was pretty much business as usual.

Until a black lawyer named Ted Landsmark, on his way to a meeting, chose that particular moment to pass by. At once, a knot of protesters set upon him, knocked him down, kicked and punched him, shattered his glasses, broke his nose. Landsmark stumbled to his feet and walked away.

No more than 20 seconds had elapsed, but an enterprising cameraman named Stanley Forman had been there the whole time, snapping away. And the image he came away with, once seen, can never be forgotten. On the right: Landsmark, writhing in another man's grip. On the left: a high-school student named Joseph Rakes, caught in the act of driving an American flag into Landsmark's pinioned body.

The picture took 1/250 of a second to capture, and more than three decades later, it's still with us, still defining a pathological strain in our culture that shows no sign of going away.

What explains the image's power? To begin with, it is, like many "accidental" photographs, an extraordinary work of art. In his estimable chronicle, "The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America," historian Louis P. Masur does a fine job of unpacking the picture's aesthetic antecedents -- Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre, the flag raising on Iwo Jima, even Rubens' "Christ on the Cross" -- and an equally good job of "reading" the picture as metaphor.

At a strictly symbolic level, of course, it's a meditation on the American flag. Old Glory, once a tool for colonizing territory, is now being used to recolonize a U.S. citizen. "The protester," writes Masur, "is trying to implant the flag into the black man and claim ownership." (What the author is perhaps too polite to add: The flag is aimed not at Ted Landsmark's face but at his groin. The fear of black potency is every bit as palpable here as it is in "The Birth of a Nation" or "Light in August.")

Beyond its status as artwork, the picture gains immeasurable strength from its context. The attack on Landsmark happened during America's bicentennial -- and in Boston, of all places, that cradle of liberty, a stone's throw from where black martyr Crispus Attucks was shot down. Americans fed a steady diet of Selma and Birmingham and Montgomery and Little Rock were forced to acknowledge that a Northern city could be every bit as riven by race....

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