Stars, Stripes and Civil Rights

Thomas Sugrue in the London Review of Books:

Bostonflag Of the various iconic representations of the flag of the last half-century, from Jasper Johns’s series of paintings to the image of construction workers hoisting it above the debris at the collapsed World Trade Center in September 2001, one of the most famous is the subject of Louis Masur’s latest book. On 5 April 1976, the photographer Stanley Forman of the Boston Herald American followed a group of anti-Civil Rights protesters onto the plaza outside Boston’s City Hall. His picture shows Joseph Rakes, a white teenager, wielding Old Glory as a spear, lunging forward as if he were about to impale Theodore Landsmark, a well-dressed black attorney who’d had the misfortune to cross paths with the protesters. As Landsmark tries to dodge his attacker, a heavy-set white man appears to restrain him, readying him for martyrdom.

In the bicentenary year of America’s independence, Forman’s photograph was a reminder that, despite celebrations of its revolutionary glory and proclamations of its national greatness, the country had not overcome its original sin of racism. That Forman shot his photograph in Boston, a city that called itself the Cradle of Liberty, made it even more effective. Most Americans associate racial injustice with the South, and many Northerners insist on their racial innocence. ‘If I hear the four hundred years of slavery bit one more time,’ a white Northerner complained to the journalist Pete Hamill in 1970, ‘I’ll go outta my mind.’

More here.