The Soiling of Old Glory
If you can’t use the American flag as a weapon, then what’s freedom of speech all about, anyway?
That could very well be the way some interpret the actions of the flag-wielding young man in the above photo. In reality, most everyone was horrified by the image.
Boston, MA wasn’t doing enough to ensure racial equality in its public schools, and in 1974 a federal judge ordered school busing. This Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, taken by Stanley Forman of the Boston Herald American, was visual proof of the dissent surrounding that decision during a particularly violent demonstration at City Hall Plaza on April 5, 1976. The incident occurred just a block from Faneuil Hall, where our Revolutionary heroes pledged freedom and independence for all Americans. The photo was picked up worldwide and demolished the assumption that racism in America was confined to the South.
The photo is titled “The Soiling of Old Glory.” It shows a black man with his arms pinned by a white man and about to be impaled with the American flag wielded by an angry white student.
But is that what really was really happening? Or, is this is where first impressions are sometimes wrong?
In a new book by Louis P. Masur entitled “The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America” published by Bloomsbury, the African-American man in the photo recalls how he happened to be at City Hall Plaza that fateful day. Ted Landsmark was a lawyer for the Contractors Association and was late for a meeting on the hiring of minorities for construction jobs.
As Landsmark entered City Hall Plaza, 200 white demonstrators clashed with a group of African-American students on a tour. Landsmark was punched and kicked to the ground, breaking his nose and eyeglasses.
The man holding Landsmark in the photo was Jim Kelly, head of the South Boston Information Center and a future city councilman. He had rushed in to help Landsmark and was picking him up, not pinning him. The angry flag-bearer rushed at them, but the flag never touched Landsmark. The photo famously captures the harsh symbolism of the moment, but also suggests an outcome that didn’t quite occur.
Much has changed in Boston since the Soiling of Old Glory. New and more progressive administrations were elected and more opportunities became available to everyone, but challenges remain. Hopefully, Old Glory can continue to inspire the best in us, and not bring out the worst in us.