The photo was chilling. Before a crowd of onlookers, a white man appears to be attempting to stab a black man with the tip of a flagpole.
“It really showed racism,” said photographer Stanley Forman 40 years after he took the Pulitzer Prize-winning snapshot of an anti-busing protest that had turned violent. “It was whites on blacks. It was an awful picture.”
In the wake of 1970s rulings at the state, federal, and Supreme Court levels that ordered the desegregation of schools, Boston had implemented the compulsory busing of students in accordance with court orders. Students were bused to schools far from their homes to address the segregation and inequality of the schools in predominantly white vs. predominantly black neighborhoods.
By the time Stanley Forman showed up for work on April 5, 1976 at the Boston Herald American—now the Boston Herald—busing had been going on in the city for almost two years. Anti-busing demonstrations were routine to the point that photos of protests were not automatically run in the paper, he said.
As Forman headed to Boston City Hall to photograph a demonstration, he didn’t expect the event to turn violent, and even after he took the iconic photo, he didn’t expect it to go viral.
“I’d covered demonstrations going back to the 60s,” said Forman. “Anti-war demonstrations, flag burnings, all those types of things. I did not grasp the importance of this picture until it was published.”
A group of anti-busing activists were leaving City Hall at the same time that a group of black students were going to City Hall for a tour, he said. Police broke up the fighting.
Meanwhile, 29-year-old attorney and black civil rights activist Ted Landsmark was rounding the corner for a meeting in City Hall and ran into the boycotting students. Joseph Rakes, a white teenager, was carrying a flag because he had just come from saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
It was a gauntlet, said Forman.
“The Soiling of Old Glory”—the photo was later named by the Herald American editor Bill Lewis when it was being submitted to contests, said Forman—showed the American flag being used as a weapon in an assault by a crowd of whites upon a black man. It was racism, captured in amber.
The freeze-frame of the chaos is misleading in two ways, however. Kelly—an anti-busing activist—appears to be pinning Landsmark’s arms down, but he is actually helping the already-battered man to his feet; and Joseph Rakes, the white teenager with the flagpole, was swinging the flagpole at Landsmark and narrowly missing, rather than trying to stab him.
Rakes had been carrying the flag because he had just come from saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
“The only reason we’re still talking about [the photo] is because the pole had a flag on it,” said Forman.
After the fight had ended and the crowd had moved on, Forman headed to Post Office Square and ran into a reporter who told him that the Associated Press was putting out stories about the violent protest. He went back to the office and developed the film using a Versamat machine, a finicky contraption that occasionally ate the film.
“The Soiling of Old Glory” ran on the front page of the Herald American the following day, beneath an article about the death of business tycoon Howard Hughes.
Had the incident happened nowadays, “I think the flag picture would be at the top,” said Forman.
Forman is now a cameraman for Boston television station WCVB. Earlier this month, he met with Landsmark for a special WCVB segment on the 40th anniversary of the photo.
“He does not want to be known as the Flag Man,” said Forman.
“The vast majority of Bostonians did not live here 40 years ago,” Landsmark, an accomplished architect and civil rights attorney who went on to be the president of Boston Architectural College, told WCVB. “There is a new demographic, a new group of people and a new set of attitudes towards race in the city.”
As for himself, Forman said, the photo’s legacy will last longer than his.