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Life After Iconic 1976 Photo: The American Flag's Role In Racial Protest

"The Soiling of Old Glory" was taken on April 5, 1976, during the Boston busing desegregation protests.
Stanley Forman
Boston Herald American
"The Soiling of Old Glory" was taken on April 5, 1976, during the Boston busing desegregation protests.

We all know the photo: It captures the rage, division and the racial tension from 40 years ago that is still so present now in our country.

Titled "The Soiling of Old Glory," the photo won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography. Stanley Forman took the picture on April 5, 1976, for what was then the Boston Herald American.

"For the time (it) has everything you want in the picture," says Forman. If you've seen the picture, it's hard to forget. A young, white man lunges at a black man with the sharp point of a flagpole, with the American flag attached.

Forman remembers the day clearly.

"It was a Monday. And I reported to the office, and I spoke to the city editor, who was Alvin Saley. Asked what he was doing. He told me there was a busing — every day was a busing demonstration — it was a busing demonstration down at city hall. I asked if I could go, he said, 'Sure,' so I went down there."

There were a lot of these protests happening in Boston at the time. The city had been busing kids outside of their neighborhoods in an effort to desegregate the schools.

Forman grabbed his cameras and went down to city hall. He came upon a group of white student protesters walking through the main plaza.

"I looked over my shoulder as most of the group kept going and I saw a black man taking the turn. He was coming up State Street. In the background is the original statehouse, and I just, it just clicked in my mind, they're gonna get him."

The black man who was attacked, Ted Landsmark, is now 70 years old.

In 1976, Landsmark was a 29-year-old Yale-educated lawyer. He was a New York transplant working in Boston as an attorney. He had a background in civil rights work and, at the time, was trying to get more minority contractors into construction. But he hadn't been paying much attention to the busing protests, and he had no idea he was about to run directly into one.

"I had difficulty finding a parking space in downtown Boston, and I was running a few minutes late for the meeting in city hall. So I was in a hurry and perhaps not paying as much attention as I might have as I approached a corner, where the young demonstrators were coming in the other direction. I did not see them until both they and I were at that corner."

Before he knew it, a group of students surrounded him.

"The first person to attack me hit me from behind, which knocked off my glasses and ended up breaking my nose. The flag being swung at me came at me just moments after that and missed my face by inches," Landsmark recalls.

"The entire incident took about seven seconds."

All the while, Forman was watching through his camera lens. He captured the attack and left the plaza to follow the protesters. Ted Landsmark went to the hospital.

"As luck would have it, there was an African-American doctor who was on duty. And, when he bandaged me, he pointed out that there were a number of reporters waiting to talk to me outside of the emergency room and that we had a choice as to how to deal with my broken nose: We could either put a small bandage on it or he could basically wrap my face in a way that would indicate that I'd been a victim of major violence. And he asked what my preference was, and I told him that I would rather have the major wrap if I was going to be facing the media."

Landsmark knew what had happened to him was not just a personal attack — it was a new flash point in the ongoing civil rights struggle.

Right after he left the scene, Forman called his editors, who had told him the story was already getting out.

"'It's on the wires,' Forman recalls them saying. " 'A guy got attacked.' "

"I said, 'I got the pictures.' He goes, 'What? What? Get in the office right away. So I went back to city hall plaza ... developed the film. And it was scary. [My editors] were very frightened by it."

"It was an 'Oh, wow' moment; how big do we play it?" Forman says. They were hesitant to put it above the fold.

"And they sort of got lucky because Howard Hughes died. They had an out ... But who knows. Top of the page was Howard Hughes, bottom of the page, a little bit above the crease, was the flag image."

The next day, the photograph appeared in newspapers across the country. Ted Landsmark's phone began to ring.

"People began to call me and to send me copies. I had had no idea that it would get the kind of dramatic distribution that it did. And I received hundreds of letters and communications from around the world expressing support for me, asking what I had done to provoke the crowd which, of course, was nothing."

What he did do was to use the attack as an opportunity to draw attention to racial injustice. Landsmark realized he had a choice.

"I could either focus on my anger at being attacked, or we could try to mobilize other people, who had not been involved with any of the busing and the violence, in a way that would bring more people of conscience into the conversation around the subject of what was going on in Boston at that time," Landsmark says.

He would spend the next weeks and months speaking out in local churches and schools, talking with community groups and elected officials.

Landsmark says he never again saw Joseph Rakes, the white student who came at him that day with the flag. NPR did not hear back after reaching out to Rakes for comment.

In a Smithsonian Magazine account of Joseph Rakes and his motivations, Rakes said that, essentially, he was a kid and the busing proposal meant that he was going to lose half his friends. He was going to be forced to go to a different school, and that made him upset.

Landsmark says he didn't spend much time thinking about Rakes and his motivations on that day, but that "in all of the comments that I made, I did focus on the motivations of the adults who had encouraged these young people to be out of school and to participate in the kinds of demonstrations that led to high levels of racial violence. And I felt that that was grossly inappropriate."

The flag is back in the public discourse on racial inequality in this country, in large part because of Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback for the 49ers who is conducting an ongoing protest.

Landsmark says the flag "is a symbol of what we aspire to be as a democracy," albeit a complicated one, given its diverse audience.

"I view myself as an American who has benefited tremendously from the best America can provide. And I also recognize that in the name of the flag some very heinous things have been done to people in this country and elsewhere," he says. "When there's a demonstration that involves the flag that speaks to how we express our values of democracy and fairness, that it is really an appropriate icon for all of us to look to as to what we want to be as opposed to what we sometimes have been.

"The demonstrations that are going on at this moment speak I think to what it is we aspire to be as a democracy that provides fairness and equal opportunity and equality to all of the people that believe in the best values of the flag."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 18, 2016 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Stanley Forman's last name as Foreman.
NPR Staff