Stars and Strife
A clash of cultures at Boston's City Hall in 1976 symbolized the city's years-long confrontation with the busing of schoolchildren
* By Celia Wren
* Smithsonian magazine, April 2006
The incident on Boston’s City Hall Plaza took no more than 15 seconds, Ted Landsmark recalls. He was set upon and punched; someone swung an American flag at him; his attackers fled; he glanced down at his suit. “I realized I was covered with blood, and at that moment I understood that something quite significant had happened.”
What had happened was partly an accident of timing—a collision between a man walking to a meeting and young protesters out to make a point, a skirmish in Boston’s epic confrontation over court-ordered busing to desegregate the city’s public schools. But in Stanley J. Forman’s photograph, the symbolism of the moment—the anger, the flag, the staggered figure that happened to be Ted Landsmark—seemed to epitomize the frustrations and grievances of a city on the edge.
Boston’s battle over busing dominated local civic life for more than a decade following a federal judge’s 1974 order to desegregate the schools. (The judge, W. Arthur Garrity, withdrew from the case 16 years later.) Forman, then a photographer for the Boston Herald American, had covered the issue from the start. “I was there for every bad thing that happened,” he says, “and this was the climax of it—of everything bad that can happen when you live in a town that is so heated up.”
On that day, April 5, 1976, Forman went to City Hall Plaza to photograph a demonstration by students opposed to busing. After taking a few pictures of the protesters, he glanced over his shoulder. “I saw this black man coming around the corner and a bell went off in my head,” he says. “And I said, ‘They’re going to get him!’ I didn’t think they would get him with the flag.”
Landsmark, a Yale-educated lawyer then 29, was late for a meeting on affirmative action in city construction projects. As he walked toward city hall, he was mulling over what he planned to say, when a crowd rounded a corner and suddenly approached him.
“There wasn’t anything for me to do at that point other than to walk straight,” recalls Landsmark, now president of the Boston Architectural Center, an architectural college.
Several people assaulted him; his glasses were knocked off; he was hit and kicked. Joseph Rakes, then 17, swung a flagpole bearing the Stars and Stripes at him—Landsmark says Rakes tried to hit him but not spear him, as Forman’s picture suggests—and narrowly missed. One blow broke Landsmark’s nose.
A labor foreman now living in Maine, Rakes vividly recalls the “blind anger” that motivated him—anger aimed, he says, at the urban policies that were ruining the close-knit South Boston neighborhood where he’d grown up. “When the busing started, it was, ‘You can’t have half your friends’—that’s the way it was put towards us,” Rakes says. “They took half the guys and girls I grew up with and said, ‘You’re going to school on the other side of town.’ Nobody understood it at [age] 15.”
The day he borrowed his family’s flag for the demonstration, Rakes says, he was simmering with two years of pent-up frustration. Another set of protesters threw debris and rocks at his group, he adds, and that “sent everybody over the edge....It kind of exploded at that moment.”
The photograph won Forman his second consecutive Pulitzer Prize. (Today he is a videographer for WCVB-TV in Boston.) “I don’t want to say I was lucky to get it, because I knew what I was doing,” he says. “But I was lucky to get it.”
The photograph also made Landsmark something of a local celebrity, and he became a spokesman in the media and other public forums on racial tolerance. From 1989 to 1997 he worked in the office of the mayor of Boston, dealing with violence reduction and other issues.
Though Landsmark acknowledges that Forman’s photograph led him to a “leadership role” on issues of race and economics, he also says he’s tired of being asked about it. “What I find somewhat annoying, after all this time,” he says, “is that that single photograph sometimes overshadows many of the actual accomplishments that I’ve been involved with.” Last December, for example, he received the American Institute of Architects’ Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, for exemplifying the profession’s responsibility to take on social issues.
Rakes’ actions at City Hall Plaza led to a conviction for assault with a deadly weapon and a two-year suspended sentence. “The picture—it says what it says, but it doesn’t tell the whole story,” he says. “You know, there’s nothing I can do about it. I just move on in my life.”Category: Discrimination and admissions , Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping , race and education , race relations in Boston