It would seem a daunting task to write an entire book based on a single photograph, but author Louis P. Masur is equal to the challenge in his latest work, The Soiling of Old Glory. The picture on the cover reveals the book's focus: A well-dressed black man is being held by an angry white crowd. Facing him is a young white teenager bearing an American flag. He holds the staff like a spear, appearing ready to thrust it into the stomach of the black man.
The photo was taken in Boston on April 5, 1976, during a racially charged protest over school busing. The image was captured by Stanley Forman, a photographer for the Boston Herald American. Forman's photograph caused a national uproar, not only because of the graphic violence, but also because it occurred during America's bicentennial year, just steps from the site of the Boston Massacre. Forman won a Pulitzer Prize for the picture.
That single photograph serves as a starting point for Masur to examine a range of themes. First, there are the details leading up to the historic event: How the angry mob marched downtown to protest outside City Hall; how black lawyer Ted Landsmark happened to be walking by on his way to a meeting; and how Forman arrived on the scene to record the assault on film. Additionally, Masur, professor of American Institutions and Values at Trinity College, uses the image to explore a variety of issues, such as racism, school busing and the impact of images of the American flag, from Iwo Jima to 9/11.
Perhaps most fascinating are the author's interviews with Forman, Landsmark and Joseph Rakes, the teenager holding the flag. Each give their unique account of the event, withespecially poignant testimony from Landsmark, who forgives his attackers, and Rakes, who apologized to Landsmark and spent his life trying to make amends for his actions.
The Soiling of Old Glory is 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.
John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.