A moving reminder of a painful episode in American history.
In 1976, Boston was bitterly divided over a court order to desegregate its public schools. Plans to bus students between predominantly white and Black neighborhoods stoked backlash and heated protests. Photojournalist Stanley Forman was covering one such demonstration at City Hall when he captured an indelible image: a white protester attacking a Black attorney with the American flag. A second white man grabs at the victim, appearing to assist the assailant.
The photo appeared in newspapers across the nation and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. In The Soiling of Old Glory, esteemed historian Louis P. Masur reveals what happened the day of the assault and the ways these events reverberated long afterward. He interviews the men involved: Forman, who took the photo; Ted Landsmark, a Black, Yale-educated attorney and an activist; Joseph Rakes, the white protester lunging with the flag, a disaffected student; and Jim Kelly, a local politician who opposed busing, but who helped Landsmark to his feet after protesters knocked him to the ground. The photo, Masur discovers, holds more complexities than initially meet the eye. The flag never made contact with the victim, for example, and Kelly was attempting to protect Landsmark, not hurt him.
Masur delves into the history behind Boston’s efforts to desegregate the schools and the anti-busing protests that shook the city. He examines photography’s power to move, inform, and persuade us, as well the assumptions we each bring to an image as viewers. And he delves into the flag to explore how other artists and photographers have shaped, bolstered, or challenged its patriotic significance.
Gripping and deeply researched, The Soiling of Old Glory shows how a disturbing event, frozen on a film, impacted Boston and the nation. In an age of renewed calls for visual literacy and disagreements about the flag’s meaning, Masur’s history, now updated with a new foreword by Ted Landsmark and a new preface by the author, is as relevant as ever.
An elegantly reasoned, wonderfully researched and deeply moving new book.
Los Angeles Times
A moving reminder of a painful episode in American history.
Historian Masur (1831: Year of Eclipse) has written a gem of a book based on an iconic, Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph by Stanley Forman. Taken on April 5, 1976, at a Boston rally against forced school busing, it's a stark, frightening image of an angry white teenager brandishing an American flag at a well-dressed African-American man, apparently trying to impale him. Published on the front page of newspapers across the country, the photo crystallized the complex issues that enflamed Boston during the city's school busing crisis. Masur addresses the source of the picture's power on a multitude of levels, bringing uncommon wisdom and explanatory skills to his analysis of the collision of the Civil Rights movement, racism and community concerns about court-ordered busing programs. Masur is superb when deconstructing the photo, pointing out the elements of its composition that infused it with meaning, while at the same time asking provocative questions that illuminate how the interpretation of a photograph can affect our perception of an event. Equally compelling is Masur's discussion of the shifting and potent historical symbolism of the American flag, which stands at the metaphorical center of the photo. Starred Review.
Contributing to memoirs from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Katzenbach combines personal anecdotes with reflections on the rule of law in the American federal system. A lawyer, Katzenbach held posts in the Department of Justice, including that of attorney general, which he resigned in 1966 to become an undersecretary at the State Department. History may little note his brief diplomatic career, but it recognizes his role as a primary advisor on civil rights to the Kennedy brothers and Lyndon Johnson. After recounting his recruitment into the new administration in 1961, Katzenbach relates the pressure particular campaigns of the civil rights movement brought to bear on the federal government. Integrating universities in Mississippi and Alabama, integrating public accommodations, protecting the Selma marchers, and gaining congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — Katzenbach played a crucial part in the federal government’s action in all these events. When added to his personal interactions with JFK, RFK, and LBJ, Katzenbach’s recollections constitute a significant new source for larger collections on the turbulent 1960s. Starred Review.
An elegantly reasoned, wonderfully researched and deeply moving new book... Masur's skill at teasing the symbolic resonance from the photo's structure and composition is impressive, as is his treatment of the flag as national icon. He displays his real skill as a historian, however, in his remarkably clear and fair-minded synopses of tangled racial histories. Boston's certainly is one of those, and you won't find a better or more crystalline account of it than in "The Soiling of Old Glory." His sketch of precisely how the Boston school crisis develops is a small model of detailed economy and essential context... Masur's elegantly clear-eyed analysis of this famous photo and the people and conditions that actually produced it proffers, if not a counter maximum, a parallel one: All politics are local until they become symbolic — and then they belong to us all.
Masur examines the photograph's visual power and provides an informed deconstruction of the image in terms of composition, texture and light. With his precise skills as a cultural historian, Masur probes deeper, analyzing the photograph's role in the emotional collision of civil-rights activism with continued racism and the resulting changes in the community...a fascinating look at both the sacred and profane ways the flag has been portrayed in the name of artistic expression and the legislative attempts to limit them... Sharp and vivid.
An engaging book for anyone interested in journalism, photography, history or social themes, as — like a photograph — it reflects the actions and attitudes of America at a distinctive place and time.
This disparity between actual event and photographic appearance is what makes The Soiling of Old Glory read at times like a mystery story, as we wait to hear that over time the truth of the image has silted out into our cultural consciousness.
Most historians begin with a large argument or theory, then attempt to demonstrate its relevance within a specific context. Louis Masur reverses this interpretive process, beginning with a very specific incident - in this case a racially charged moment in Boston in 1976 - then spreading outward to trace its origins, resonances and implications for the larger story. In order to do this well you need to know how to tell a story and write uncommonly well, both qualities that Masur possesses in abundance. In my judgment, he is the best there is at what he does.
In "The Soiling of Old Glory," Louis Masur is at his best, dissecting a single photographic frame to reveal its essential gravitas, humanity and inhumanity, and explaining how we see, interpret — and misinterpret — imagery in the modern age.
Louis Masur's vivid and compelling book provides depth and breadth to this haunting, horrific, photograph. He carefully situates this image into significant contexts: Boston's racial tensions, the symbolic power of the flag, and the photograph's connection with other visual icons in our history. The Soiling of Old Glory helps readers appreciate not only the public life of this picture, but its impact on those forever associated with it.
Louis Masur has written an indispensable history about an unforgettable image. With admirable empathy and grace, he reveals why racial conflict in modern America is both so compelling and so difficult to resolve.
Louis P. Masur's fine-grained study of the Boston school bussing violence and the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph that memorialized it is grassroots visual culture at its finest. The anatomy of an icon!
Louis P. Masur's deep contextual reading of a single photograph that defined a painful historic moment for our nation is a surprising page-turner.
Lou Masur continues to write some of the freshest and most original work in American history. Each of his books has expanded the discipline, and "The Soiling of Old Glory" has taken "history" all the way into the present. With artistry, verve and impeccable research, he has written another jewel of a book, and opened up an entire world through a single image.
Louis P. Masur is Board of Governors Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. He is the author of many books including The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America, Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion, Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union, and The Civil War: A Concise History.
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