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The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America

by Louis P. Masur

Pub Date: April 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59691-364-6
Publisher: Bloomsbury

The history behind the 1976 Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of an enraged white man lunging to spear a black man with a pole holding the American flag.

The assault occurred during the disastrous attempt to integrate Boston schools by busing, brilliantly described by J. Anthony Lukas in Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985), which also garnered a Pulitzer. Emulating Lukas’s format, Masur (American Institutions and Values/Trinity Coll.; Autumn Glory: Baseball’s First World Series, 2003, etc.) delves into every aspect of the event in addition to exploring the lives of the photo’s three participants: attacker, victim and photographer. Readers will enjoy his history of the American flag as an object of almost religious veneration. A parallel account surveys flag desecration, which peaked during the Vietnam War era. Desecration has largely migrated overseas, Masur comments, but the act continues to enrage conservative Congressmen, who work hard every year to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing it. While the two figures in the photo receive their due—Joseph Rakes, the attacker, and Ted Landsmark, the victim—the author writes far more about newsman Stanley Forman and his picture. Forman arrived late for the anti-busing demonstration. Other newsmen were following the crowd, but he got there as it approached and crossed paths with the black man, so Forman had the only clear view of the assault. Luck played a vital role in his getting the shot, as it often does in scoops, but the author notes that Forman had already received a Pulitzer for another stunning picture and would go on to win other awards, so his talent was an obvious factor as well. Masur draws an analogy between the sensation produced by this and two other iconic, flag-related photographs: raising the flag over Iwo Jima in 1945 and over the rubble of the World Trade Center in 2001.

A moving reminder of a painful episode in American history.