LOOK AT THIS PHOTO! Is there an image anywhere that says “The Sixties” better than a longishly-haired young man peacefully placing a flower in the barrel of a bayoneted rifle pointing in his direction? This photo was taken in 1967 when few males outside of the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco had grown their hair very long. Consequently, these protestors look so clean-cut, so non-Sixties-ish.
Photojournalist Bernie Boston took this photo on October 21, 1967, during the march on the Pentagon mobilized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Depending on who you want to believe, the event drew as few as 50,000 participants or as many as 100,000—not including those in uniform. 1
Bernie Boston’s photo is one of the most iconic images of The Sixties, and will remain so as long as there is history.
As Bernie watched this mass of people and the armed troops that confronted them, he recognized the potential for a dangerous confrontation. He also recognized a situation that could inspire some great photographs.
“This young man appeared with flowers and proceeded [to] put them down the rifle barrel,” he said. “And I was on the wall so I could see all this, and I just started shooting.”
Bernie did not get a chance to speak with any of his subjects. Consequently, none of the men in one of the most famous photos of the decade were identified. This includes both the young man in the turtleneck sweater, his fellow protestors, and the members of the 503rd Military Police Battalion. 2
When Bernie returned to The Washington Star with his photos, things did not go as he expected: inexplicably, the editor didn’t see the importance of the picture, and buried both it and the story! 3
“I knew I had a good picture,” Bernie stated. He entered the photo in various competitions under the title Flower Power, and it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It became one of the most reprinted pictures of the ’60s, appearing in magazines, books, government textbooks, and even documentaries and television specials.
Almost a Pulitzer Prize
Bernie Boston’s parents gave him a Kodak Brownie camera when he was 7-years-old. He became a photographer for his high school newspaper and yearbook. In 1955, he graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), then attended the US Air Force School of Aviation Medicine. He served in the US Army for two years as a radiologist in Germany.
All the while taking photographs.
After his discharge, Bernie did freelance work before starting full-time photography for The Dayton Daily News. He joined The Washington Star and remained with them as director of photography until the paper folded in 1981. He then was hired by the Los Angeles Times, for whom he worked in the nation’s capital.
The paper didn’t see the importance of the picture, but it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and became one of the most reprinted pictures of the ’60s.
Boston photographed many important people, including President Richard Nixon, shaking hands with protesters after the 1968 riots in Washington, apparently oblivious to the irony of the gesture. He captured many well-known black leaders, including photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. during his Poor People’s Campaign, and a portrait of H. Rap Brown.
In 1987, while working for The Los Angeles Times, he was again nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, this time for his photograph of Coretta Scott King at the unveiling of a bronze bust of her late husband in the US Capitol Rotunda.
Boston was presented with the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award and was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Sigma Delta Chi, later known as the Society of Professional Journalists.
Bernie Boston died in 2008 at the age of 74.
FEATURED IMAGE: This is one of the quintessential images of The Sixties and will no doubt remain so as long as there is history. The only thing that might make it more perfect would be if a pretty young thing who looked like Sally Field (think Gidget) or Terri Garr (think Shindig) had been holding the arm of the young man smiling at the Guardsmen as the flower found its way into the barrel of the rifle.
1 “Hoping to attract young, educated college students, coordinator David Dellinger appointed Jerry Rubin to organize the march. The initial DC rally, which was galvanized by a concert performance from Phil Ochs, drew approximately 70,000 participants at the Lincoln Memorial. Following Ochs’ concert, as well as speeches from Dellinger and Dr. Spock, around 50,000 of those attending were then led by Abbie Hoffman and marched from the Lincoln Memorial to The Pentagon to participate in a second rally.” (Wikipedia)
2 Several names for the young man have been put forward but none verified. The most common is George Harris, who later founded the gender-bending entertainment troupe The Cockettes. Looking at this photo fifty years later, the young man with the longish blond hair looks somewhat like me at the time.
3 Editorially, this decision is up there with Decca not signing the Beatles in 1962!