Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Legacy of Old Glory & Boston Latin School

Joseph Rake swings a flag at attorney Ted Landsmark
As a young African-American boy growing up in the mostly white suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland in the 1970's I was light years away from the turmoil that gripped the city of Boston in 1975 and 1976 in the wake of the court-ordered desegregation of the city's public schools.

But I vividly recall the unsettling sense of fear I felt when I first saw the iconic photo (pictured left) taken on April 5, 1976 by Stanley Forman, a photographer for the Boston Herald American.

The picture, known as 'The Soiling of Old Glory' was a shocking snapshot of the state of race in America in the 1970's that offered a glimpse of the level of anger felt by many whites in Boston over the issue of students being bused to schools far outside their neighborhoods in order to comply with the court's order to desegregate the city's public school system.

For those too young to remember, 1976 was the nation's Bicentennial year and the American flag was everywhere that year, not just on July 4th, but year round. On buildings, vehicles, logos, houses, clothes, billboards, planes, trains, television - so seeing the flag used in an act of such blatant racial hostility and violence made it even more disturbing.

And April 5th when the incident happened was just a day after the 8th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee.

Like millions of other people around the world, this image was seared into my mind for years as a symbol of the tense racial climate in Boston, but as we approach the 40th anniversary of Forman's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, it's important to remember that pictures don't always tell the whole story.

Photographer Stanley Forman
The picture appears to show white teenager Joseph Rake preparing to stab prominent African-American civil rights attorney Ted Landsmark with a pole with an American flag attached to it, but that's not what was happening.

In actuality, Forman (pictured left) snapped the famous photo as Rake as was attempting to swing the flag at Landsmark and hit him with the pole, but he missed because of the man who appears to be gripping Landsmark's arms to hold him still to be struck.

That man is Jim Kelly, and on that day back in 1976 he was one of the many anti-busing protesters gathered outside the courthouse.

Kelly actually came to Landsmark's aid when he saw the attorney being attacked by Rake and others who'd punched and kicked Landsmark to the ground right before Forman snapped the photograph.

In truth, Kelly was actually pulling Landsmark up to his feet in order to help get him out of the way of Rake striking him again with the flagpole; to me those facts change the composition and meaning of the photograph.

In 2008, Louis Masur, the author of "The Soiling of Old Glory: The Photo That Shocked America",
a book about Forman's photo, discussed how the image illustrated the contrast between how far the nation had come since the famous photo of the Marines raising the American flag over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in World War II.

In an interview with Alex Kingsbury, Masur told US News, "There are connections to the images of the Boston Massacre, and that connection was made at the time. The notion of visual memory gives it power. There's also the element of the flag and the desecration of the flag, which was quite powerful in 1976. There was a powerful sense in the country of how far things had fallen from the image of the Marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima."
Sadly, as we approach the 40th anniversary of Stanley Forman's photograph, a grass roots social media effort by two African-American students from Boston serves as a reminder of how far we as a nation have to go. 
BLS students Kylie Webster-Cazeau (L) & Meggie Noel (r)
As has been widely reported in the press over the past week or so, students Kylie Webster-Cazeau and Meggie Noel (pictured left) are both students at the prestigious Boston Latin School; widely recognized as the oldest public school in the United States, it consistently ranks as one of the top high schools in the nation.
Founded in 1635 as a school to educate the male children of Boston's elite, it was eventually desegregated to include both blacks and women.

While the first African-American to graduate from BLS was Parker Bailey in 1877, the school's efforts to desegregate its student body have made it the subject of controversy over the years, but more recently the school has come under scrutiny for not doing more to address an atmosphere that has become increasingly hostile to students of color.

Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau began to draw national attention to the issue after bringing copies of racist Twitter messages to the headmaster headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta which had been posted by other BLS students in the wake of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

Noel and Webster-Cazeau claim the headmaster did nothing to address the issue and so they began posting a series of videos on Youtube announcing their social media message that also called for current BLS students and alumnus to us social media (including their Twitter hashtag #BlackAtBLS) which has prompted national media coverage, including a Boston Globe story three days ago that called attention to the fact that black and Hispanic enrollment at Boston Latin that has dropped from 23% in 1996 to 9% today.

While I certainly admire these two high school students for having the courage to use their creativity and utilize social media to address the racial intolerance and cultural insensitivity taking place in the hallowed halls of one of the nations most prestigious schools, it's also troubling that the students, rather than administrators or faculty are the ones taking the lead to address these issues.

Remarkably, almost 40 years since Stanley Forman took his iconic photo of Joseph Rake trying to strike a civil rights lawyer with an American flag (pole) in front of a courthouse, the underlying issues related to the 1976 court-ordered desegregation of public schools in Boston are still dividing students in the 21st century.

In some ways, it makes 'The Soiling of Old Glory' even scarier.


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