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Ted Landsmark on racism, the flag attack photo, and seizing a chance to make change

Platforms for speaking thoughtfully about how to overcome racism do not always come predictably; when such opportunities arise, one must be ready.

Ted Landsmark, a Black lawyer, was on his way to a meeting at City Hall on April 5, 1976, when he was attacked at an anti-busing protest. This photo of a white youth striking at him with a flagpole sparked change.Stanley Forman

How does a photograph contribute toward advancing social justice? How does one assess the policy-making impact of a powerful image?

Boston Herald American photographer Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer-winning photo The Soiling of Old Glory is a definitive statement of racism in America. Viewers are shocked to see our national symbol of “liberty and justice for all” being used as a weapon of racial hatred against me. Making a public statement right after nearly being killed by an American-flag-wielding demonstrator steps away from City Hall in 1976 was, in retrospect, easy for me to do.

I had been to the 1963 March on Washington, and in college when I joined Northern students in Selma, Alabama, to march for racial justice, I’d been hunted by racist night riders. I had been spat on in civil rights demonstrations in New Haven and felt the sting of racism in New York’s streets, shops, restaurants, churches, and cultural institutions. And I’d been present to hear the angry, calming, reflective, and inspired statements of civil rights leaders, who were always seeking a path forward when under stress.

By the time I moved to Boston as a young lawyer and community activist in 1973, I was prepared to try to transcend my anger at endemic racism by offering forward-looking comments and specific recommendations that public agencies, private businesses, and individuals could take to overcome longstanding racial biases. I was already an advocate and facilitator for civil rights dialogues and opening opportunities to those excluded from the economic mainstream because of their race, and I was ready to respond to my attackers with words that put their violence toward me in a broader context. And Forman was ready, too — present at City Hall Plaza to capture what became an iconic image and driver of social change.


Platforms for speaking thoughtfully about the effects of racism and how to overcome it do not always come predictably; when such opportunities arise, one must be ready to speak truth to power. In the moments after being attacked, I knew that expressing my anger against my assailants might feel good, but it wouldn’t galvanize a wider public or its government toward community understanding and healing.


Within an hour of the incident, I spoke to reporters about the need to hold accountable those political and social leaders who had encouraged and condoned violence against children or had remained silent while their neighbors committed racist acts on Boston’s streets, in government, and in corporate suites. I wanted to shift the responsibility and accountability for the violence directed at me away from my attackers and toward those silent, behind-the-scenes actors in a long-racist Boston — actors who benefited, and continue to benefit, from pitting one working-class group against another, along racial lines. I knew my words would have to respect and have meaning for Black and white residents seeking a resolution to Boston’s racial issues.

As the photograph was disseminated around the world, changes in civic and policy attitudes began to result in progress for Boston’s Black and brown people. I was part of the dialogues that began among civic leadership, community organizations, and nonprofit entities because of the shame, embarrassment, and projected economic losses resulting from increased negative publicity in that bicentennial year. We discussed the city’s class and ethnic divisions, racial violence, court mandates for integration, and Boston’s reputation as an unwelcoming place for people of color.


Community-based advocacy for change sparked many focused initiatives, from housing integration to youth employment and educational access, economic development in communities of color to expanded cultural awareness, and more. The attack on me helped drive communication among silent residents and corporate and civic leaders about longstanding patterns of discrimination and racial exclusion, just as the murders of young Black people led to change through the Black Lives Matter movement decades later.

Ted Landsmark wrote a forward for the forthcoming book "The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America," by Louis P. Masur.

Boston has changed over the decades. Its population now consists primarily of people of color, including many immigrants — 80 languages are represented in the schools. Our first elected woman mayor is Asian American, and many local elected officials are women of color. The economy has grown substantially, thanks in part to innovative talent, great universities, and shared investments in the region’s future. The work of transcending injustices embedded in American society since before the Constitution continues, led by a new generation of diverse, intentionally antiracist policy makers. Raw animosities of Black versus white have evolved into more nuanced collaborative efforts to create cross-cultural understanding. Yet more remains to be done, particularly in America’s private sectors of technology, finance and investment, universities, and real estate.

Racism in action is rarely documented as dramatically as it was that day on the Plaza; it lurks far more subtly in workplaces, employment practices, families, and social settings. The historic moment Forman captured remains a catalyst for deeper conversations about how to overcome the fears and isolation that underlie racism, while planning for a more open, tolerant, and inclusive American future. To heal and support one another more equitably, we need to talk about social injustices, painful as it can be.


The moment to make a transformative statement — verbal, visual, or gestural — can arise at any time. When it does, we must be ready with words from the heart or actions that heal, or inspire, or inform where a sense of personal risk might otherwise engender silence. We may be at work, in a classroom, at a sporting event, or at a social gathering, where our negative response to someone’s casually racist remark or action likely will lead to embarrassment, an angry backlash, or isolation. It takes courage and a sense of ethical commitment to be publicly critical in such settings. But that is the time to speak instinctively and forcefully.

Ted Landsmark is distinguished professor of the practice and director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center within the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. This essay is adapted from the foreword of The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America by Louis P. Masur, published in a new edition by Brandeis University Press, 2024. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

EVENT: Landsmark, Masur, and Forman will take part in a free, in-person and virtual panel and book signing at Suffolk University, 120 Tremont Street, on April 11 at 6 p.m. Visit wgbh.org/events.