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Behind the Photo – Spencer Grant

March 26, 2009

The Story Behind the Photo – Forced Busing Pictures – Spencer Grant

In a series of forthcoming interviews with various photographers, Behind the Photo will explore the often unheard stories that go along with some of PhotoEdit’s best multi-ethnic photos. Our third interviewee, Spencer Grant, has been with PhotoEdit for over a decade and has a strong background in historical, documentary photos. Here he takes readers back to Boston in 1974, a town that was filled with racial tension and anxiety over the issue of forced busing.

Historical black and white photo of policemen on motorcycles escorting line of school buses carrying Black students to segregated schools at a predominantly White neighborhood as ordered by a federal court in 1974, Boston, MA

September 12, 1974 was the first day of court-ordered busing to achieve “racial balance” and Boston was in a tense mood. There was a real fear of racial violence in close-knit neighborhoods such as South Boston. Police protection had been ordered for the arriving students.

I wanted an assignment covering the busing “crisis.” It was the biggest story in town, but the best I could do was a $75.00 half-day commitment from Time magazine: “Photograph the media covering busing.” It wasn’t much of an assignment. Busing would take place at many schools citywide and “the media” would be spread thin. To improve my chances, I went to South Boston High School on G Street, where anti-black sentiment was strong. If the media showed up in force, it would be there.

Police safety measures were loosely enforced when I arrived. Journalists were grouped on the sidewalk in front of the school, but no one was telling them to stay there — I could wander if I wished, and I strolled over to nearby East 6th Street, looking down the long, straight route where the buses would be arriving. No one followed me. In the distance I saw a crowd of police motorcycles.

As the buses approached, I thought, “This isn’t my assignment, but it’s too good to miss.” Standing in the middle of the intersection, I was expecting a yell from one of the cops any second, but nothing happened as I focused my 70-210mm zoom lens, leisurely enough to get both vertical and horizontal compositions of the onrushing buses framed by their escorts. I was back among the other journalists by the time they arrived.

Historical black and white photo of policemen on motorcycles escorting a line of school buses carrying Black students to segregated schools at a predominantly White neighborhood in compliance to a 1974 federal court order, Boston, MA

As I had expected, there wasn’t much chance for good pictures of the press covering the event. The cops had gotten their act together at last and herded the press into a corner. After a few shots I decided I would make the best use I could of the event for stock, and shot the black students getting off the buses and climbing the school stairs.

Time didn’t use the shot of the approaching buses — it didn’t use anything I had shot, and they never gave me another assignment. Little did I know that the next day the cops would be better organized and the press was corralled in front of the school, out of sight of East 6th Street. The picture I had taken the day before could never be taken again — and only I had taken it.

A few months later, Boston Magazine asked me for some illustrations for a story on the busing. I retrieved the film from Time and made a print that Boston Magazine ran across two pages. That was just the beginning. I passed the print on to my agency at the time, Stock Boston. In a few months the picture started to sell — and sell, and sell. I lost count when the number of sales topped 500. For a while the picture was selling two and three times a month. Now and then it still sells today.

I have often tried to choose my best picture from those days of “angry Boston.” There are lots of candidates. Was it the April 1970 anti-Vietnam War riot? Was it the demonstrators battering down the door to Harvard’s school of international relations? Was it George McGovern’s primary victory night (his only one)? Was it the American flag being torn apart ironically in protest against the draft? Was it the Boston University faculty striking against tyrannical president John Silber? Was it the panoramic scene of the South Boston rally against busing addressed by demagogue Louise Day Hicks?

Or was it that day I stood alone in the middle of a street and took a picture I hadn’t been told to take — an iconic, historical image symbolizing the racial hypocrisy of a city that liked to think of itself as “The Cradle of Liberty”?

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This concludes the third edition of Behind the Photo, featuring Spencer Grant and his historical photos of forced busing. If you would like to see more of Spencer’s historical imagery, please click the images below:

Historical black and white photo of White women marching hand-in-hand at the 1979 Take Back the Night March, a march to protest against rape and other forms of violence against women, Boston, MA

Historical black and white photo of an angry White male truck driver complaining about escalating fuel prices during the 1973 Oil Crisis as a result of an oil embargo by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in retaliation to U.S. involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict during the Yom Kippur War, Worchester, MA

Historical black and white photo of White people gathered on Columbus Park to protest the 1975 federal court ordered busing of Black students to a predominantly White neighborhood in Boston, MA

Historical black and white photo of multi-ethnic group of people marching on Boston Common to urge legislators to vote against Doyle-Flynn Bill, the anti-abortion law, Boston, MA

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