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September 11, 2017

Be the Flower in the Gun: The Story Behind the Historic Photograph "Flower Power" in 1967

Flower Power is a historic photograph taken by American photographer Bernie Boston for the now-defunct Washington Star newspaper. It was nominated for the 1967 Pulitzer Prize. Taken on October 21, 1967, during the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam's March on the Pentagon, the iconic photo shows a Vietnam War protestor placing a carnation into the barrel of a rifle held by a soldier of the 503rd Military Police Battalion.

Flower Power, 1967, photographed by Bernie Boston on October 21, 1967, while he was sitting on the wall of the Mall Entrance of the Pentagon.

After he took this famous picture Washington Star publishers didn't see the value of the image and buried it the A section of their paper. Not deterred Bernie Boston sent the image out to various photo competitions which resulted in a number of awards, prizes, and international recognition.


Taking the photo

The end of the '60s saw a number of anti-Vietnam war protests. Covering one of the last big protests Bernie sat with his camera on a wall at the Mall Entrance to the Pentagon. While the protest neared the gates Bernie watched as a National Guardsman lieutenant marched a group of armed men into the sea of demonstrators. The squad formed a semi-circle, their guns pointed at the demonstrators.

A young woman offers a flower as a symbol of peace to a military police officer at the October 21, 1967 March on the Pentagon. (Photo by S.Sgt. Albert R. Simpson)

In a 2006 interview, Bernie remembers thinking things could have got ugly when all of a sudden, “this young man appeared with flowers and proceeded . . . [to] put them down the rifle barrel,” Boston told National Public Radio. “And I was on the wall so I could see all this, and I just started shooting.”

While he knew he had a good picture the Star editors didn't feel the same way and gave the picture minimal coverage. “The editor didn't see the importance of the picture,” Boston said later. “We buried it … I entered it in contests, and it started winning everything and being recognized.”




Subject

Many debates have been brought up as to the identity of the young demonstrator placing the carnations in the gun barrels on that day. According to a 2007 Washington Post article by David Montgomery, his name is George Edgerly Harris III. Harris was a young actor from New York, about 18 years old, who later made the Summer of Love pilgrimage to San Francisco that for which the hippie movement was famous. There, he came out as gay, changed his name to Hibiscus, and co-founded The Cockettes, a "flamboyant, psychedelic gay-themed drag troupe."

Harris died in the early 1980s during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.


Photographer

Bernie Boston was born on May 18, 1933, in Washington, D.C., and graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in photography, after which he studied at the School of Aviation Medicine in the U.S. Air Force. He served in the Army for two years while in Germany practicing radiology "in a neurosurgical unit." In 1958, he left the Army and returned to Washington, working in custom photofinishing.

Tired of working as a freelancer in photography, he joined the staff of the Dayton Daily News in Ohio five years later. After three years, he returned to Washington and joined the staff of the Washington Star, within two years becoming the director of photography. He remained in that position until the paper closed in 1981, moving on to work at the Los Angeles Times.

In 1967, the same year he captured Flower Power, Boston was commissioned to shoot a portrait of former Black Panther H. Rap Brown. Noticing the trend of a call for civil rights in the late 1960s, Boston took more images of the Civil Rights Movement, including a portrait of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. during his Poor People's Campaign, and other history-making events.

Boston also photographed every American president from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. He taught photojournalism classes at Northern Virginia Community College and Rochester Institute of Technology.

Boston died on January 22, 2008, of amyloidosis, a rare blood disease with which he had been diagnosed in 2006.



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