The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America, by Louis P. Masur

My Copy: 9781596916005 (image from Bloomsbury Publishing)

The Soiling of Old Glory is a book I had to read for a class in college, and it’s probably the only one I’ve reviewed and re-read several times. This is a book that’s very well put together. It’s the biography of that photograph of the young man swinging the American flag at another in a moment of rage, caught in 1/250th of a second.

A photo that changed so many things.

I was born nearly a decade after and over a thousand miles away from this incident. And after growing up in Texas and hearing about the Civil Rights Movement in the South during the 60s and 70s…I never heard about racial tensions in the North.

Well, it was probably late high school or History 101 in college before I saw that famous photo–and it jolted me.

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The Soiling of Old Glory tells about what was going on that infamous day in Boston, how the altercation started, and how it all ended. It’s a pretty good introduction to the Boston “bussing controversy” of the 1970s, if like me, you’d never read or heard much about it before. It opens a window on the racial and class tensions, and gives a brief glimpse into how crazy and confusing things were for the young people in Boston, and how blind anger can change lives.

It gets pretty deep into the figures, the history of the crisis, and the people involved, even more than the photo. The photo is just the catalyst, and yes, there is PLENTY about that… and other iconic photos in our history. It’s like two books in one, in that regard, but they feed off each other quite well…I think it helps in understanding the incident’s emotional impact when all those factors come together.

It also speaks of the photographer, Stanley Forman, and how he came to be there that day, the decisions of the newspapers in covering the event and showing the photograph, some of the other photos taken that day and how the image was shown in Boston’s Herald American and the Globe.

It speaks of the American flag, such a symbol used for violence in this photograph, and its history in the American consciousness: how it’s been practically enshrined as a symbol and the alternate views surrounding it by laypeople, activists, artists, or marginalized groups.

This book discusses so much beyond the initial altercation photographed. The Soiling of Old Glory invites questions on the meaning of images and how we can interpret them. It invites questions on what the American flag really means and means to people (which is a helluva controversial point this day and age).

In our crazy hyper-information age of today, I think this book is one of the most relevant books that need to be read and studied. I recommend it for everybody interested in journalism, photography, or better yet, give it to every high school student as required reading.

We need literacy on all fronts, and visual literacy of photographs and video is very important, especially in this crazy age of instagram-ing and photoshopping, of “fake news” and other crap that keeps rotting our brains.

All photos tell a story. This book is a great example of how far that story can go in the right or wrong direction, and the importance of context.

The Soiling of Old Glory will probably be on my shelf forever. And if it disintegrates, I’ll just go get another copy.

I can’t recommend this one enough–there are just too many reasons to!

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