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Old Glory marred in black, white

BOOK REVIEW

The Soiling of Old Glory The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America Louis P. Masur Bloomsbury Press: 226 pp., $24.95

April 09, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

Constitutionalism is what America has instead of an established church.

According to that creed's theology, racism is our original sin, the primal failing that disfigures all our good works and denies all our efforts perfection. When our first parents, the Framers, made a place for chattel slavery in their new system, they ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and Eden was forfeit.

The problem of relations between the races is so fundamental to the American drama that we can communicate about it with each other in precisely these sorts of metaphors. Indeed, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) invoked them in his astonishing Philadelphia address just a few weeks ago.

Louis P. Masur invites us to consider another symbolic invocation of race in an elegantly reasoned, wonderfully researched and deeply moving new book, "The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America."

In 1976, America's bicentennial year, newspaper readers across the country awoke to see a shocking photograph from Boston, which was in the grip of a long-running civic crisis over efforts to desegregate its schools through busing. Demonstrators had marched to city hall to protest the most recent turn in the controversy. On the way out, a 29-year-old African American attorney named Ted Landsmark turned a corner into the march and was horribly assaulted by some of its members. Stanley Forman, a photographer for the Boston Herald American, happened to be on the scene and kept snapping pictures. One of them turned out to show -- or at least, it seemed to show -- Landsmark being held by one man, while another demonstrator prepares to spear him with an American flag.

Building from the photo

It was a shocking image that seemed to encapsulate -- indeed, for many, it did encapsulate -- white resistance to civil rights. Masur, the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of American institutions and values at Trinity College, begins with that photo and its circumstances and from there builds an analysis not only of the picture and its structural and symbolic components, but also of its actual context.

He located not only Forman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his image, but also Landsmark, Jim Kelly -- the sheet-metal worker turned politician who appeared to be holding the young lawyer for assault -- and Joseph Rakes, the young man wielding the flag as a weapon.

Suffice to say that nothing that day was quite as clear-cut as the powerful image suggested and that all four went on to surprising -- and surprisingly productive -- futures.

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.

A shaky Boston

There never was any doubt that the Boston School Committee and just about everybody in authority there had -- if not conspired -- worked for many years in common purpose to isolate the city's growing African American student population in separate, unequal schools.

Indeed, despite its proud designation as the cradle of American liberty and abolitionism, Boston had a lousy racial history. In 1849, a black printer named Benjamin Roberts challenged the School Committee's segregation of public school students -- and lost before the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The Boston Red Sox were the last major league team to field a black player "in 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers."

Even so, the Boston school crisis of the 1970s came at a particularly unstable moment. Some of the top-notch academic sociologists who earlier had unanimously agreed on even de facto segregation's pernicious effects on African American students had expressed second thoughts, based on more recent research. Two consecutive presidents -- Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford -- had declared their opposition to busing. It was undoubtedly a declaration delivered in the interests of the Republicans' new Southern strategy and their overtures to those working class, mainly Catholic, voters who later would become "Reagan Democrats." At street-level, though, it sounded very much like a presidential endorsement for resistance.

For a variety of local reasons, that resistance was nowhere fiercer than in South Boston, by the 1970s, one of the few isolated pockets of the remnant Irish underclass that had been the intransigent scourge of urban reformers during the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

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