It’s not the bus: it’s us

Thomas Sugrue

  • BuyThe Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America by Louis Masur
    Bloomsbury US, 224 pp, $24.95, April 2008, ISBN 978 1 59691 364 6

In the United States the flag has the status of a religious icon, a totem. It cannot be carried horizontally or flat, but must always be ‘aloft and free’. There is a protocol for folding it, it can’t touch the ground, it can’t be burned except when it is worn out or irreparably damaged and then only as part of a special ritual. Military men and women salute it, civilians hold their right hands over their left breasts when singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and schoolchildren pledge allegiance to it. It is also a ubiquitous presence in the American landscape. The Red, White and Blue waves from people’s porches, flies over car dealerships and gas stations and adorns flower-pots; cars are festooned with it in the form of bumper stickers, window decals and antenna pennants. The flag decorates the altars of churches of every denomination except those of a few dissenting sects. And it has become a necessary accessory for political candidates. Early in his campaign, Barack Obama was criticised for his unpatriotic failure to display a flag lapel pin: as president-elect he now regularly wears one.

America’s freewheeling consumer culture has spawned all sorts of profitable bastardisations of the flag: it appears on swimming costumes and thongs, on hardhats and baseball caps, on flip-flops and tennis shoes. Today the commercial desacralisation of Old Glory goes without comment, though it was a cause of outrage before the 1960s, when Americans were desensitised by blue jeans with flag pockets and flag-printed T-shirts. Allen Ginsberg – always good for political theatre – turned the Star-Spangled Banner into a top hat and perched it on his bushy head. Somehow, over the last forty years, Americans have managed to reconcile their twin idols: free enterprise and the flag.

Like all religious and national symbols, the flag has no single meaning. It can be a symbol of conservatism or a banner of protest. Radicals and artists sometimes trample, burn or mutilate it, but in the post-9/11 years dissenters are more likely to fly the flag than besmirch it. Protesters against the war in Iraq, adopting the slogan ‘peace is patriotic,’ often carry the flag; and two years ago advocates of immigrant rights, many of them non-citizens, waved it in massive demonstrations and pledged allegiance in Spanish.

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.’

Joseph Rakes and his comrades were working-class whites protesting against court-mandated school desegregation. In 1974, a federal judge, W. Arthur Garrity Jr, had ordered the Boston school district to remedy its racial imbalance by sending students, usually by bus, to schools outside their racially homogeneous neighbourhoods. Boston’s whites – mostly Irish Catholic and fiercely turf-conscious – argued that the desegregation plan would destroy their ‘neighbourhood schools’. The anti-busing movement saw the ubiquitous yellow school buses as a symbol of tyrannical social engineering. Buses carrying black students into all-white South Boston were pelted with rocks; most white parents refused to put their children on buses going into predominantly black neighbourhoods. Several years of protest, sometimes prayerful, often violent, ensued.

Anti-busing leaders denied that their protest had anything to do with racism. Louise Day Hicks, a city council member who was nearly elected mayor on an anti-busing platform, said that busing was ‘undemocratic, un-American, absurdly expensive and diametrically opposed to the wishes of the parents in this city’. William Bulger, the flamboyant state senator whose district was the bastion of the anti-busing movement, lamented the ‘unremitting, calculated, unconscionable portrayal’ of his mostly Irish-American constituents ‘as unreconstructed racists’. Defending ‘the natural rights of parents to safeguard the education of their children in their traditional local schools’, Bulger argued, ‘does not mean that we oppose the ideals of integrated education’. It just meant that integration would be impossible.

Boston’s Irish-Americans, the largest ethnic group in the city and the most visible of its anti-busing activists, cast themselves as the victims of history, blacks as feckless and undeserving, and advocates of school desegregation as oppressors. In a peculiarly American version of victimology and self-reinvention, they invoked their ancestors’ tales of workplace signs that read ‘No Irish Need Apply,’ and claimed that through hard work and gumption they had risen above oppression while blacks continued to wallow in self-pity.

Boston’s Irish were not alone in their resentments. Martin Luther King was pelted with bricks when he led marches in Chicago’s Polish and Lithuanian enclaves during the summer of 1966. Throughout the 1970s, Italians in Brooklyn fiercely defended their turf from blacks. And in 1972, whites in Pontiac, Michigan, a blue-collar city near Detroit, held violent anti-desegregation demonstrations and destroyed several school buses. Just two years before the Boston busing crisis, the right-wing pundit Michael Novak, a staunch defender of working-class whites, expressed his disbelief that they could even be accused of anti-black prejudice: ‘Racists? Our ancestors owned no slaves. Most of us ceased being serfs only in the last two hundred years.’ ‘White ethnics’, as they were called, resented being held accountable for America’s troubled racial past. But like the flag-wielding Rakes, they couldn’t contain the racism that animated their movement. As the Civil Rights activist Julian Bond said, ‘It’s not the bus: it’s us.’

The history of Civil Rights struggles in the North remains largely unwritten, but the Boston crisis has been the subject of several major books, documentary films and dozens of articles, which Masur ably summarises here. The most influential accounts, by J. Anthony Lukas and Ronald Formisano, offer sympathetic portraits of Boston’s working-class whites, who, it’s argued, were the victims of class prejudice on the part of ‘limousine liberals’ like Judge Garrity. Sanctimonious suburbanites could escape the remedies that they imposed on blue-collar Bostonians – they didn’t have to send their children to school with the Negroes – while they held urban whites in contempt as redneck racists.

The Manichean narrative – elitist social engineers versus long-suffering working-class whites – downplays everyday racism, marginalises the Civil Rights activists and black parents who fought for decades against Boston’s separate and unequal schools, and draws a false dichotomy between urban and suburban whites. Urban whites in Boston and throughout the North were not racial innocents. Their neighbourhoods were segregated as a result of long-standing public policies, real estate practices and everyday violence that restricted blacks’ freedom of choice in the property market. A black person who made the mistake of crossing one of the city’s invisible racial boundaries would be beaten or worse. Blacks couldn’t move into white neighbourhoods unless whites were already fleeing. Real estate agents wouldn’t show them houses there, banks wouldn’t give them loans or mortgages, and if they were lucky enough to buy a home, angry white neighbours would retaliate with violence.

The busing crisis emerged after years of white indifference and outright hostility to Civil Rights activism. The city council, school officials and ordinary white citizens alike ignored charges that majority black schools were underfunded and inferior. Even symbolic gestures of reconciliation met with contempt. At a St Patrick’s Day parade in 1964, a group of working-class whites threw eggs and stones at a float sponsored by the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Suburban whites didn’t bother to jeer or throw eggs, but they were even more powerful in perpetuating blacks’ second-class status. The absence of black people in their neighbourhoods and schools was one of suburbia’s main attractions. Racism took different forms in city and suburbs, but it was built into the institutions, the school districts, local government, the housing and labour markets, into the very terrain of the metropolitan North.

In the years leading up to the busing crisis, the most progressive activists, policymakers and litigators in the North had come to realise that the key to racial equality was opening up the suburbs and their exclusive school districts on a non-discriminatory basis. But that proved to be an enormously difficult task. In 1968 a widely acclaimed but very small Boston area desegregation programme led some white suburbs to allow a token number of self-selecting black students to enrol in their school districts. But anything resembling region-wide racial integration was unthinkable – and, by the time of Garrity’s ruling, nearly impossible. In 1974, in Milliken v. Bradley, a divided Supreme Court struck down cross-district school desegregation – the only chance Boston and other Northern cities ever had to overcome racial divisions. Judge Garrity, limousine liberal or not, was bound by the Milliken precedent. He couldn’t order a desegregation plan that included Boston and its suburbs.

Anti-busing leaders adopted the rhetoric of colour blindness to give their movement a patina of respectability, but Rakes was not so careful. One commentator, alluding to Emerson’s description of the opening battle of the American Revolution, called Forman’s photograph ‘the shot heard round the world for its indelible portrait of American racism’. In many respects, however, Rakes’s act was one of the last, desperate expressions of the anti-busing movement, which quickly faded in the late 1970s and 1980s, as whites withdrew their children from ostensibly integrated schools and moved to the suburbs, which, especially after Milliken, were perceived as places of safety by whites escaping the threat of racial integration. (Rakes himself now lives in Maine.)

Anti-busers’ efforts to preserve their racially homogeneous neighbourhoods and schools failed, but the larger effort to thwart desegregation was all too successful. Northern school districts never really desegregated and, in fact, became more racially polarised in the last quarter of the 20th century. Boston, like every major Northeastern and Midwestern metropolitan area, is balkanised by black and white. In 2006, the Supreme Court struck down voluntary school desegregation plans in Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky as constitutionally impermissible uses of racial classification. American education remains racially separate and unequal.

Masur reflects briefly on the history of segregation since 1976, but the heart of his book is a reflection on the indeterminacy of representation, and on the contingency that made Forman’s photograph possible. In the book’s most intriguing section, Masur reconstructs the events of 5 April. Forman got his shot because he arrived late at the protest and stood apart from the gaggle of photographers, all of whom missed the assault on Landsmark. But their photographs – and those that Forman took but didn’t publish – capture the chaos and ambiguity of the events at City Hall. Rakes didn’t succeed in planting the flag in Landsmark’s body. The man who appears to restrain Landsmark in the photo, James Kelly, an anti-busing leader and later a city councilman, was actually trying to prevent the assault. The photos Forman took next show that Kelly interposed himself between Rakes and Landsmark, calming the crowd. Forman’s photograph alone is an inadequate document of what happened that day. But it captured the underlying reality of racism – the arbitrary violence and terror that supported it – and most important, the way the flag could become an instrument of dispossession and oppression.

In his reflections on the meaning of Forman’s photograph, Masur occasionally ventures into unfruitful art historical speculation, musing on the religious symbolism of Rakes’s act and comparing it to the Roman centurion piercing the side of the crucified Christ in Rubens’s painting. Ultimately, the power of the photograph derives from the centrality of Old Glory itself. Rakes desecrated the flag by using it as a weapon, but in doing so he revealed the inextricable connection between racism and American patriotism, between America’s long history of racial exploitation and its most cherished symbol. In the microsecond it took him to capture the soiling of Old Glory, Forman held a lens up to America’s dualism, and above all to the unresolved tensions of race that are at the core of American identity. The Stars and Stripes was born of both slavery and liberty, and African Americans, more than any group in America, understood its doubleness. During the Civil War, freed slaves rallied around it, but at the turn of the 20th century, the African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Henry McNeal Turner declared that ‘to the Negro the American flag is a dirty and contemptible rag.’ In the 1960s, Civil Rights demonstrators carried it again, as a reminder that they too had the right to be full American citizens.

On 4 November more than 100,000 people – black and white – gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park to celebrate the election of Barack Obama. There, in the heart of one of America’s most segregated cities, they waved countless little flags. It was a moment of unity in a country where the Red, White and Blue is still tainted black and white. Three decades after the soiling of Old Glory, we have overcome. And we have not.