I was perusing an old photo book recently and came across Stanley Forman’s 1977 Pulitzer Prize winning photo of an anti-busing protestor using a flag as a lance to attack a black attorney in Boston. It was a photograph that shook the nation into the realization that segregation was not just a Southern issue.
In his 2008 book, The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America, Louis P. Masur describes the impact of the photograph:
The image served as a harsh reminder that the triumphs of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had turned tragic. Progress had been made, but alongside it stood backlash and failure. Americans cherished stories of wrongs righted, of darkness yielding to light, but Forman’s picture provided a poisonous counter-narrative. The brotherhood of man was a worthy ideal, and it even seemed at times that a strong foundation had been laid for its realization. But in a claustrophobic courtyard, a white man turned the American flag against a black man, and the ideal crumbled.
The perception of Boston as a racist city persisted for years. Ironically, it was in Boston in 2004 that Barack Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention with a speech that helped launch him into national attention.
The flag can be a potent weapon of emotional and even irrational behavior. It can also be a quiet reminder of more positive meaning.
This Flag Day, let’s keep things in perspective.
Before Bill Kesler retired in 2007 as vice-president of production for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he worked for more than 20 years as a photojournalist.