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Who was that white man with the flag?

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

On April 5, 1976, a white man attacked a black man with an American flag on a pole. By great good luck—or bad, depending on your point of view—Boston’s Herald American photographer, Stanley Forman, was standing in the right place at the right time—or wrong, see above—with his finger on the shutter of his camera. The resulting photograph was reprinted around the world and won the Pulitzer Prize, and pretty much stopped busing in Boston dead in its tracks.

This book tells the story behind the photograph. Who was the white man with the flag? Who was the black man being attacked? Who were all those white students and why were they so mad? Who was the photographer, and how did he get that shot, and how did he almost lose it, and why is the caption so important? Why was Boston, previously known as “the cradle of liberty,” suddenly such a hotspot for racial inequality and the civil rights movement? And why was this photograph, out of so many documenting white-on-black abuse at that time, why did this one imprint itself so strongly on the nation’s psyche? Masur writes

Many of the most notorious images of racial violence involve police brutality–the authorities using excessive force against African Americans….In contrast, Forman’s shot captures one citizen attacking another. And it was not just any violent assault, but one that employed the American flag as a weapon–in the year of the nation’s Bicentennial, no less.”

This is a fascinating study of a single image that reverberates back to other images, including Joe Rosenthal’s “Flag Raising on Mt. Suribachi.” “It seemed,” writes Masur

…as if one could write a history of the nation’s decline in the thirty one years between [Rosenthal’s photograph and Forman’s]. Not merely the busing crisis but a general sense of malaise afflicted the country in the mid-1970s. Whatever economic and social progress had been made in the 1950s and ’60s seemed stalled. Americans suffered through Vietnam and they suffered through Watergate, two crises that raised fundamental questions about patriotism and the vitality of the nation. People felt lost, and into that sense of dislocation entered Forman’s shocking photograph that seemed to confirm the worst nightmares over the fate of the country.

Masur also points out the positively eerie similarities between Forman’s photograph and and Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre. Where, it must be remembered, one of the victims was a black man named Crispus Attucks.

You’ll learn a little about how to “read” photographs, too. Highly recommended.

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