The following essay is adapted from the new book, The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America (Bloomsbury), by Louis P. Masur.
Ted Landsmark's office is crowded with images. President of the Boston Architectural College, Landsmark, who holds a law degree as well as a doctorate in American Studies, is a student of African-American culture. There is a portrait of Thurgood Marshall; there is a print of John Trumbull's "The Death of General Warren at Bunker Hill," which at one edge shows a black Revolutionary soldier; there is a 19th-century lithograph that depicts the death of Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre.
There is also, on the wall above his desk, a framed photograph of a white student attacking a black man with the American flag. The picture, taken by Stanley Forman at an anti-busing rally held at Boston's City Hall Plaza on April 5, 1976, won the Pulitzer Prize for the Boston Herald American spot news photographer.
© Stanley J. Forman
"The Soiling of Old Glory," Stanley J. Forman's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. Boston, April 5, 1976.
A portrait of unthinkable racial hatred, the photograph punctured the nation's comfortable illusion that the struggle over civil rights was primarily a Southern phenomenon, and it crystallized Boston's reputation as a racist city. Following the assault, the man at the center of the frame, who is none other than Landsmark, proclaimed that someone tried "to kill me with an American flag."
The photograph presents a sickening sight. Landsmark is being grabbed from behind. He seems to be struggling to free himself as a large crowd looks on. The flag bearer's feet are planted, his hands firmly grasping the staff, his eyes focused on his target. His hair flows back as he prepares to lunge forward. Attacker and victim are forever frozen in time, and we feel trapped beside them. We can glance away, but we cannot escape the horror of what we imagine the next instant will bring.
The image served as a harsh reminder that the triumphs of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had turned tragic. Progress had been made, but alongside it stood backlash and failure. Americans cherished stories of wrongs righted, of darkness yielding to light, but Forman's picture provided a poisonous counter-narrative. The brotherhood of man was a worthy ideal, and it even seemed at times that a strong foundation had been laid for its realization. But in a claustrophobic courtyard, a white man turned the American flag against a black man, and the ideal crumbled.
Forman's photograph remains implanted in the collective memory and identity of Boston. In 2005, residents across Boston held a series of City-Wide Dialogues on Boston's Ethnic and Racial Diversity. To one meeting, someone brought the picture. The participants had been quiet, but the image of a black man being assaulted with the American flag broke the silence. Michael James, a 39-year-old African-American resident of Roxbury, said, "Everybody in the room, no matter their race, was appalled. It accelerated the conversation. It was like: 'We do have something in common. We don't want this to ever happen again.'"
What follows is the story of the photograph that would come to be titled "The Soiling of Old Glory," and the story of the man who was attacked with an American flag and had every reason to flee a city viewed as racist, but who remained in the hope that he could make a difference.
The morning of the assault, Landsmark was late to a meeting. A lawyer for the Contractor's Association, he was headed to City Hall for discussions on minority hiring in construction jobs. Dressed well on this mild April morning, he wore a favorite three-piece suit and enjoyed the brisk walk.
Born Theodore Augustus Burrell in Kansas City in 1946, he grew up in public housing in East Harlem. His father worked as a subway conductor; his mother was a nurse. His parents separated when he was three, and Landsmark was raised by his doting mother as well as his grandparents and two aunts. When he moved to Boston in 1973, he took his mother's maiden name, to "honor the woman who did all the work."
Landsmark attributes his dawning political consciousness to his grandfather, who was a follower of Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist leader and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The young Landsmark watched his grandfather come home from the coal yards and wash up with grit to get the grime off of his hands. Then he would settle down with a Ballantine Ale and a copy of The New York Times and preach to whoever was listening about the events of the day.
Landsmark attended New York's elite Stuyvesant High School. After a year at St. Paul's in New Hampshire, from which he graduated in the first cohort of blacks ever to attend the prep school, Landsmark went to Yale in 1964. He was one of 16 black students in the freshman class, and it did not take long for him to become involved with the civil rights movement both on campus and off. He served as political editor for the Yale Daily News, got interested in photojournalism, and had his first experiences in the South when he answered an ad placed by some Divinity School students looking for help driving down to support the freedom marches.
The travelers experienced racial hatred as they never had before. At one point, Klan members chased them and they hid behind a bush. In late March 1965, Landsmark was among the thousands who marched from Selma to Montgomery. He would return South in 1968. When news of King's assassination hit, Landsmark instinctively got into a car and drove non-stop to attend King's funeral.
At Yale, Landsmark's thinking about social responsibility and moral accountability developed under the guidance of William Sloane Coffin, the university chaplain. A leading liberal clergyman, Coffin opposed the Vietnam War, supported civil rights, and urged peaceful acts of civil disobedience. Coffin had weekly conversations at his house about how to be an ethical and responsible individual. Calvin Hill, the star football player on Yale's team who went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, was so taken by the conversations that he asked whether he should stop playing football because of the sport's violent nature. "No, no," Landsmark recalls he and others implored.
Landsmark contemplated a career in architecture or city planning or law. As a child in the projects he grasped intuitively the reciprocal relationship between environment and identity, but he had deep reservations about the architecture profession, which had so few black members. He did not want to spend his career in loneliness and isolation. Landsmark instead enrolled at Yale Law School and pursued concurrently a non-traditional art and architecture degree.
In 1973, after graduating law school, he moved to Boston and took a position at Hill & Barlow, at the time one of the city's most prestigious firms. Michael Dukakis was his boss, and William Weld had the office across from him. Both men would one day serve as Governors of the Commonwealth. Landsmark quickly discovered that the mundane aspects of a law practice were not for him. Defending corporate clients, such as Amtrak in railroad crossing cases, paid the bills, but after a dozen or so cases in which he negotiated a settlement with the family of some poor soul who thought he could win a race with a train, Landsmark thought about moving on.
The decision to do so came easily after his first real vacation following his move to Boston in 1974. He had decided to go to St. Kitts, the ancestral home of his maternal grandmother. What he found astonished him. People of African descent were doing a wonderful job leading the country. The experience was nothing less than an epiphany. What he had heard his whole life, that people of color could not govern effectively, was simply not true.
He realized at that moment that for all his education, and all the elite black leaders in America with whom he had contact, he had been a victim of the pernicious effects of racial prejudice. Racism, Landsmark states, "inculcates and perpetuates a stereotype within the minds and culture of the people who are being discriminated against so that we come to believe that we are inferior." He returned to Boston determined to direct his life in ways to help minorities succeed, to manage their lives and communities from a position of confidence and strength.
Landsmark enjoyed his new position with the Contractor's Association. His legal training came into play, as did his interest in civil rights and his continuing passion for architecture and environmental design. It was his work for the Association that had him rushing to a meeting at City Hall on the morning of April 5, 1976.
The protesters he encountered were just leaving City Hall and headed toward the Federal Building. This was another in a series of marches conducted by students and parents ever since June 1974 when Federal Judge Arthur Garrity found that the Boston School Committee had deliberately maintained segregated schools in violation of the law, and ordered a program of busing to promote desegregation.
Some 200 white students from South Boston and Charlestown assembled for the march to City Hall Plaza. "We all wanted to belong to something big," recalls one teenage protester, "and the feeling of being part of the anti-busing movement along with the rest of Southie had been the best feeling in the world." Southie meant more than just the geographic place South Boston. It meant neighborhood and community and ethnic pride. Thinking of the long day ahead, some packed a snack. Some made signs that said "RESIST." One student, before leaving his third-floor South Boston apartment, grabbed the family's American flag.
From the start, the anti-busing movement identified itself with patriotism. The activists saw themselves as defending their liberty against the tyranny of a judge run amok. Boston's celebration of Bicentennial events in 1975 and 1976 only reinforced the idea that they were carrying on in a tradition of American resistance: one anti-busing group had as its motto "Don't tread on me." At rallies and boycotts, protesters carried American flags and frequently sang "God Bless America." Protesters against the Vietnam War often burned Old Glory, but not here, not among the mainly working-class Irish of Boston.
Some adults accompanied the students on the march. Part organizers, part chaperones, they kept the group moving and watchful to avoid any trouble. One of the leaders was Jim Kelly, president of the South Boston Information Center. Kelly had graduated South Boston High School in 1958, where he played football and learned a trade. He became a sheet metal worker, putting in long hours and raising a family in South Boston. Kelly was a working-class kid. "My father didn't make much money," he said. "We were renters all our lives. I understand what it's like to live week to week."
When the marchers arrived at City Hall, Council President Louise Day Hicks, a zealous opponent of busing whose actions when she was a member of the School Committee precipitated the lawsuit that led to Judge Garrity's decision, invited them into the empty council chamber. The students presented a list of their demands. Hicks served hot chocolate to the marchers, and together everyone said the Pledge of Allegiance. Hicks often wore a rhinestone-spangled flag pin, and had once declared that "the flag is motherhood and apple pie."
As the students filed out of the chambers and headed outside, they passed a group of black students from a nearby magnet school going on a tour. Epithets flew, as did pieces of food—donuts, cookies, apples. Groups have moods, and the protesters, fueled with cocoa and patriotism, marched onto the plaza feeling righteous about their cause. At that moment, a black man turned the corner and headed in their direction.
The marchers spotted Landsmark coming toward them. So did a photographer who only minutes before had appeared on the scene. Stanley Forman loved his job. He had arrived early at the Herald American for work that day, as he did every day. He asked Al Salie, the assistant city editor, if anything was going on. Salie told him that Gene Dixon, another of the news photographers, was off at an anti-busing rally at City Hall. There was nothing else to do so Forman asked if he could go join him.
He drove his silver Mercury to City Hall Plaza, about 10 minutes away. He parked on the island on Cambridge Street, cracked the window for his golden retriever, Glossy, who accompanied him everywhere, and began walking.
Thirty years old, Forman had already established himself as one of the most energetic and talented spot news photographers in the business. The previous summer, passing by the assignment desk, he heard a call over the fire radio for an engine to respond to a blaze. Within 30 seconds, a second alarm was sounded. People were trapped in a burning building.
Forman raced out of the newsroom. He picked up an engine racing to the scene and followed it. The fire was on Marlborough Street, and Forman ran to the back of the building; a district chief had been calling for a ladder truck to get there. As he arrived he saw a firefighter climbing down from the roof. A 19-year-old girl and her 2-year-old goddaughter stood there on the fifth-floor fire escape, trapped by the flames inside the building.
The firefighter, Robert O'Neill, shielded the two from the flames and waited as the motorized ladder inched toward them. And then the fire escape collapsed. Forman kept shooting as the child and woman plunged to the ground. He took one last shot and looked away as the bodies hit with a thud. O'Neill managed to grab the ladder with his left arm and pull himself to safety.
Forman raced back to the office. On the way he rechecked his camera to see if the exposure was as he set it: 1/250 f.8. He found his boss, Myer Ostroff, and declared, "If these pictures don't come out I won't be in to work tomorrow and I might never come back."
He went out to another fire at two in the morning, stopped in a store, and saw the morning paper: he had the full front page and all of page three. The fire escape photograph would win the Pulitzer Prize; Forman did not learn of it until several weeks after the anti-busing rally where he took the picture that would earn him a second consecutive Pulitzer.
Around 10:00 a.m. on April 5, Forman made his way to the stairs at City Hall Plaza. He exchanged greetings with various people he knew and, as he looked up, he saw a large group coming down the stairs. It was no big deal. These rallies had become a routine occurrence. One of the protesters was waving an American flag.
Forman was ahead of the pack as it came out onto the steps and the crowd was moving toward him. He had two cameras, one with a motor drive and one without. He had three lenses: 35mm, 135mm, and a 20mm in his pocket. He left the 35 on the camera without the motor drive and replaced the 135 on the other camera with the 20, which is a wide-angle lens that provides greater depth of field and requires less focusing in the midst of action.
A scuffle began. The protesters spotted Landsmark and turned on him. One went to trip him up. Landsmark recalls a couple of them yelling, "Get the nigger." A few of the anti-busing protesters at the front jumped him. He was being kicked and punched. "As an American flag carried by one of the students swirled above the fracas, a black man was set upon by several white youths," The Boston Globe reported.
The flag bearer circled around and began to swing the flag at Landsmark. Some officers of the police mobile operations patrol and some adults intervened, but too late. The incident lasted maybe 15 or 20 seconds. Landsmark's glasses were shattered and his nose broken from the punches that he had received. He was left drifting, bloodied and dazed.
As Forman shot the scene, he felt the motor drive freeze; it was skipping. So he overrode it by starting to shoot single frames. He managed a total of about 17 shots with the motor-driven camera and six with the other. Just as suddenly as the scuffle had erupted it ended. He didn't know what he had. In fact, he didn't think much of it. Assaults like this happened all the time and seldom made for dramatic pictures. What he knew was that most of the other photographers were caught behind the pack. Because he arrived late, Forman was in front and, of all the photographers on the scene, closest to the action. "If I had been there earlier," he says, "I would have missed it."
The Globe reported that "news pictures indicated that the staff of an American flag was used in the attack." Landsmark told a writer who wondered how this could happen to such a well-educated and well-respected person that "I couldn't put my Yale degree in front of me to protect myself. The thing that is most troubling is that it happened not because I was somebody but because I was anybody. . . . I was just a nigger they were trying to kill."
Forman retrieved his car and returned to the office. He went to the darkroom and developed the pictures. Looking at them on the light table, he did not get overly excited. On first glance, he did not recognize the power of one of the shots.
But as the editors gathered in the afternoon, excitement and nervousness began to build. Every day at five o'clock they met to lay out the paper. An argument ensued over whether to run Forman's photograph. One editor urged against it, fearing that it would inflame racial tensions and cause riots. Myer Ostroff, head of the photo department, and other editors argued that the photo had to run on page one.
The national story that day was the death of Howard Hughes. Sam Bornstein, the executive editor, knew the headline and top half of the front page would be devoted to Hughes. But the local story was the anti-busing movement and the Herald American was a city newspaper. The editors meeting broke and Bornstein had made his decision. The disturbing, potentially explosive photo of a white protester using an American flag as a weapon against a black man would make page one. The photograph also appeared on the front page of the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Hartford Courant, and San Francisco Chronicle, among many others, and inside The New York Times.
Only later in the year, when Forman submitted the photograph for Pulitzer Prize consideration, did he accept an editor's suggestion and title it "The Soiling of Old Glory." It is a title that complements the photograph perfectly. This is no neutral title. The verb soiling means defiling or staining. But with the root soil, it also suggests planting. Flags are thrust into the ground as statements of ownership, whether by explorers in the New World or American astronauts on the moon. In an extreme act of desecration and possession, the protester, it seems, is trying to implant the flag into the black man.
In the immediate aftermath of the photograph's publication, Mayor Kevin White called on the police commissioner to investigate and issue arrest warrants. Governor Michael Dukakis was "appalled by the senseless and unprovoked attack." At the State House, legislators passed a resolution denouncing the assault. The legislative black caucus assembled at City Hall and called for an investigation of the role of the city council in inciting students to violence.
Letters to the Editor expressed horror over Forman's photograph. The picture shows "how low America has fallen. It shows who really runs this country, what caliber of intelligence runs this country. . . . Yeah, let freedom ring, in the hands of a demented white man and his flag of freedom." "I thought the picture of the boy running the American flag into Landsmark was disgusting," proclaimed another writer who concluded, "if that wasn't anti-American, nothing is." One woman asked, "Doesn't it remind you somehow of that oldie of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima? What a picture. Let's have a few thousand giant posters made of it and nailed up all over the city. The perfect motif for Beautiful Boston's Bicentennial."
Landsmark also had his say. On April 7, two days after the attack, he held a press conference at the Harriet Tubman House. In a room crowded with supporters and the press, he arrived in a gray three-piece suit and had a huge bandage covering his nose. Tape ran up toward his forehead and across toward his cheeks. The excessive bandaging was intentional. At the hospital, a black doctor treated him and said he could have a small bandage that would suffice to cover the broken nose, or something more dramatic. Wanting to make an impact, and desiring to remind reporters of the viciousness of the assault, he emerged with tape covering much of his face. Because of his nose, Landmark's voice sounded nasal and he apologized for it. His left eye was puffy and bloodshot.
This was his moment, and the experienced civil rights activist made full use of it. He seized the occasion to clarify the facts of the assault (despite early reports, and the impression given by the photograph, he was not hit with the staff of the flag), to offer his thanks for the outpouring of support that he had received, and to focus attention not on the busing crisis, or on the individuals who attacked him, but on the problem on economic inequality: "Racism is the apparent direct cause of Monday's unprovoked attack on me. But such racism has been fueled, by my judgment, by selfish political leaders who have been unable or unwilling to address themselves much more seriously to the hard-core economic and social problems Boston faces. We continue to need jobs and housing and high-quality education and human decency for all the people of Boston."
The assault on Landsmark, and an incident of retaliatory violence that led to the vicious beating of Richard Poleet, a white car mechanic who was attacked as he drove through Roxbury, marked the ebbing of the violence over busing in Boston. In September, Time magazine declared "Truce in Boston." No helicopters; no sharpshooters; just pockets of protesters. Eighteen months later, a reporter visited South Boston High School and found that the "open hatred and fear have finally dissipated" and that "only a lingering uneasiness" remained.
But the work of recovering from the crisis of busing, and from the racist image established by a photograph that had seared itself into the collective memory of the city, remained. That work began in earnest with the election of Ray Flynn as mayor in 1983. An opponent of busing from South Boston, Flynn presented himself as a moderate and he offered hope for the future, promising in his inauguration speech that "this is a time for hating the violence and discord of the past. It is a time for loving the city and all its people."
Less than two years after Flynn's election, Boston paused to look back on the tumultuous events of the Seventies when J. Anthony Lukas published "Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families," his magisterial study of the busing crisis as seen through the lives of three families. It was Forman's photograph that led Lukas to start his project. "In that single image he saw his beloved Boston being torn asunder," recalls the journalist Samuel Freedman.
On September 28, 1985, a town meeting on race and class, organized in conjunction with the publication of "Common Ground," drew 500 people to the Kennedy Library on a Saturday night. Ted Landsmark was one of the panelists. He had left the law to pursue his other passion, art education. Now Dean of Graduate and Continuing Education at the Massachusetts College of Art, Landsmark began by saying, "I suppose for the rest of my life I'll always be thought of in the context of a photograph."
The importance of the publication of Lukas' book, he thought, was not so much to look back as to think ahead about "what it is we want to do at this point." The most significant common ground, he said, "is that we have committed ourselves to being in Boston for the long haul and have made a basic and fundamental commitment to Boston."
What was needed, he argued, was for the private sector to respond and provide opportunities—and role models—not only for black children but white children as well. He reminded the group that nearly 10 years earlier, in the aftermath of the assault, he observed that "the chances of any of the kids who attacked me ending up on a major corporate board in Boston are as slim as any black kid ending up on a board. . . It's a matter of class that we are looking at."
Ted Landsmark soon found his way into politics, though he never ran for elective office. In 1988, Mayor Flynn appointed him director of the Mayor's Office of Jobs and Community Services and, a year or two later, as director of the Safe Neighborhoods Project. Landsmark felt a responsibility "to get my hands dirty again," to get involved in "the public sector where my day-to-day actions will have an immediate impact."
One of the politicians Landsmark regularly bumped into was Jim Kelly, the head of the South Boston Information Center who had led the rally on April 5, 1976. Kelly was elected to the City Council in 1983, and he remained there until his death from cancer in 2007. He represented District 12, which encompasses South Boston, Charlestown, and Chinatown, and served as Council President from 1994-2000. No one did more for his constituents than Kelly, and, with his conservative positions on affirmative action and other social questions, no one infuriated liberals more.
Landsmark had heard that Kelly was in the photograph taken by Forman. Indeed he is, and his presence illustrates one of the ways in which images can deceive. Kelly is the man grabbing Landsmark, and it would appear that he is holding him up to be hit. The truth is that, a moment before, Landsmark was on the ground, and Kelly, witnessing the assault, had raced in to try and lift him to safety.
In an instant (1/250th of a second), Forman's camera captured a moment that suggests a narrative that tricks the eye. When more than 10 years later Landsmark asked Kelly about it, the councilman smiled enigmatically and did not answer. But in years after that, he always called Landsmark "Teddy," and treated him as part of the political inner circle.
In the Mayor's office, Landsmark helped organize forums, provided youth with summer jobs, created local networks, and coordinated community-based health activities. His understanding of the importance of community action and involvement was central to his success. One could not simply wait for the police to stop crime. With his leadership, activists and parents worked with police authorities to lower crime. He also provided grants to other groups, such as Gang Peace, which sought to help youth turn negative relationships into positive ones.
The most inflammatory racial event in Boston since busing occurred in October 1989 when Charles Stuart reported that his pregnant wife was killed and he was shot in the stomach by a black assailant in the Mission Hill district, an integrated neighborhood. Police aggressively pursued various suspects and made an arrest. But Stuart's brother told police that it was Charles who killed his wife and wounded himself. The case ended on January 4, 1990 when Stuart committed suicide.
The racial reverberations would have lasted longer but for Flynn's understanding that his office had to respond forcefully to the racial profiling that had taken place. He had Landsmark study the way the media overplayed the racial aspects of the case and cast Mission Hill in an unfavorable light. With Landsmark's advice, Flynn was able to defuse the situation, ease tensions in Mission Hill, and explain how "it turned out we were all victims of a sinister hoax."
Landsmark continued to serve under Mayor Thomas Menino, but in 1997 left to become president of the Boston Architectural Center. Now the Boston Architectural College, the BAC offers degrees in architecture, landscape, and design. Becoming president of the BAC fulfilled for Landsmark a lifelong quest: "I first dreamed of being an architect when I was a small black kid growing up with my mother in Harlem's public housing projects." Landsmark had shied away from becoming a practicing architect because of the isolation that he feared would engulf him as a black man in an overwhelmingly white profession. Now, as BAC president, he could not only pursue his interest in shaping the built environment, but also work on the issue of diversity in what he called "the most recalcitrant of professions."
At the time Landsmark became president of BAC, he was also engaged in graduate studies to deepen his understanding of African-American culture. In 1999, he received a Ph. D. from Boston University for his study of 19-century African-American crafts. Landsmark examined the work of black artisans, both slave and free, and discussed the challenges of collecting, exhibiting, and interpreting vernacular crafts.
In a lecture on "Race and Place," delivered at the Boston Athenaeum in 2004, Landsmark drew on his expertise to discuss the markers of identity in American culture. He talked about the civic life of the city and displayed cultural artifacts from the past—including a wood plane made by a black artisan—as a point of entry for engaging those whose experiences are different.
"We are living in a new city," he declared, a city in which being black meant you were as likely to be African as American, from Senegal or Nigeria as from South Carolina or Georgia. The new racial and ethnic diversity of Boston, he continued, meant finding ways to bring those who were part of a "marginalized social class" into full participation and membership in Boston.
Landsmark also used the occasion to discuss a task force he was chairing at the request of Mayor Thomas Menino. Its mandate was to gather public input on creating a new system for student assignment to Boston's public schools. For all the work that Landsmark had done under two mayors, he had never before been directly involved in educational policy. But, in another sense, since everyone knew him as the man at the center of Forman's photograph, he was seen as having always been in the middle of the battle of busing. In choosing Landsmark, Menino sent a signal that whatever new policies emerged, they would not mark a return to the racial divisiveness of the 1970s.
In taking on leadership of the task force, Landsmark was doing what he had done for nearly 30 years, to serve the city he cherishes and to help find ways for it to move to a brighter future. If that also meant transcending in the public eye his place in Forman's photograph, so much the better.
The school assignment system that Landsmark and his colleagues examined no longer included race as a factor. In 1999, 25 years after the court decision that compelled Boston to desegregate its schools, the Boston School Committee, no longer elected but now appointed by the Mayor, voted 5-2 to drop race in placing students. Facing a lawsuit that argued the system discriminated against whites, and reading a national legal landscape in which the courts were overturning affirmative action plans, Boston chose to seek other ways to balance school choice and class diversity. Besides, the demographics of the city had changed dramatically, with public school enrollment 49 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic, 15 percent white, and 9 percent Asian.
Moreover, a large share of Boston's population had not lived in the city in the 1970s, indeed were not even born until after the crisis of busing had passed. According to one estimate, some 80 percent of the black population did not live in Boston at the time of the busing crisis. "The numbers of people who carry the baggage of Boston's racism is very few," observes Landsmark. That was not to say that they have not experienced their own incidents of racial prejudice and ostracism. But it meant that they are not burdened by the weight of having experienced the busing crisis firsthand. "You might as well be talking to them about Lincoln freeing the slaves," Landsmark emphasizes, "as talk to them about busing and how it tore neighborhoods apart."
It is a striking observation, and it gets to the essence of one of the ways reputations change: the passage of time. If Boston today is more cosmopolitan, sophisticated, diverse, and tolerant than it was three decades ago, it is that way because of the concerted effort of people like Landsmark. He had every reason to flee in 1976, and every reason to be angry and unforgiving, but instead he stayed and served with distinction.
Asked if he thinks Boston is a racist city, he immediately answers no. The racial climate "is a completely different world" than it was in the 1970s. "The city has matured," he said, "It is more accepting of difference." To be sure, there has not yet been a black mayor (unlike New York, Philadelphia, and Atlanta), and that would certainly help boost its reputation, but the city is no more racist than any other.
In 2002, Boston Magazine asked "Is Boston Racist?" and found that while there was still significant residential segregation, Boston's self-image was out of step with how the rest of the nation viewed the city. The magazine polled people living elsewhere and found that they overwhelmingly thought of the place as progressive. To change Boston's reputation from within, a new generation of leaders have worked together to transform the feel and character of the city. They have increased minority voting, forged partnerships with businesses and cultural institutions, and created support networks for black professionals. As important, blacks in Boston have decided no longer to remain invisible in the civic and cultural life of the city.
That does not mean Forman's photograph has vanished from the city's consciousness. Nearly every comment about the city's progress makes reference to the picture. It is the reference point against which all change is measured. Boston Magazine reminded readers that "because the busing era became so entrenched in peoples' minds thanks to a photo of a white man attacking a black man with the pole of a big American flag, that past still clings to the city."
When Boston bid to host the 2004 Democratic National Convention, one of Mayor Thomas Menino's goals was to change the perception of the city. "For too many people around the country," he declared, "when they think of Boston the image they remember is of Ted Landsmark getting hit with an American flag. I wanted the opportunity to show people we are a much different city now, a city where diversity is welcome."
In 2006, after Deval Patrick was elected the first black governor in the state's history, an op-ed in the Boston Globe began with reference to the photograph—"one of the most notorious icons in Massachusetts history . . . It was an ugly moment and an unforgettable picture—and all the proof countless viewers needed that Boston was a caldron of bigotry." The writer hoped that "Patrick's inauguration will finally wash away the shameful stain of that day in 1976."
Until recently, Landsmark did not own a print of "The Soiling of Old Glory." He had long ago tired of people defining him solely as the victim of an awful assault captured in a photograph that appeared in newspapers around the world. "My life has been a lot more interesting than the 20-second moment captured in that picture," he says. Rather than dwell on the incident, for more than 30 years he has devoted himself to repairing a once broken city that he loves. He sees progress, and he has come to terms with the image. The picture is an essential part of the nation's history, and it belongs on the wall beside the Boston Massacre and Bunker Hill.
© Louis P. Masur