Flower Power is an iconic photograph taken by Bernie Boston (1933- 2008) a photographer for the Washington Star newspaper, a publication that is no longer with us.
It was shot on October 21, 1967, during the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam’s March on the Pentagon, the famous photo shows a Vietnam War protestor placing a flower into the barrel of a rifle held by a soldier of the 503rd Military Police Battalion.
The end of the 1960s was an era with lots of anti-Vietnam war protests. Covering one of the last big protests Boston sat with his camera on a wall at the Mall Entrance to the Pentagon. While the protest neared the gates, he 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.
Boston said in an interview with NPR in 2006, that he remembers thinking things were not going to end well when:
… all of a sudden, this young man appeared with flowers and proceeded…to put them down the rifle barrel and I was on the wall so I could see all this, and I just started shooting.
Boston realized he had a good picture, yet his editors didn’t feel the same way and gave the picture minimal coverage. Boston:
The editor didn’t see the importance of the picture. We buried it … I entered it in contests, and it started winning everything and being recognized.
That right, the publishers didn’t think much of the image and they buried it the A section of their paper. Boston then sent the image out to various photo competitions which resulted in awards, prizes, and international recognition.
There was a lot of speculation about the identity of the young demonstrator placing flowers in the gun barrels on that day. We now know that his name is George Edgerly Harris III. Harris was a young actor from New York City, just 18-years-old, who made pilgrimage to San Francisco during the Summer Of Love made famous by the hippie movement. He came out of the closet, changed his name to Hibiscus, and co-founded The Cockettes, the flamboyant, psychedelic drag troupe.
Hibiscus, whose full beard, vintage dresses, make-up and costume jewelry created a defiant look, even by today’s standards, embraced drag and drugs as paths to spiritual liberation, and attracted a group of like-minded gay guys who loved showtunes, dressing up, showing off and dropping acid. The called themselves The Cockettes.
Dressed in drag and glitter for a series of legendary midnight performances at the Palace Theater in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, they quickly became a heroes for San Francisco’s queer community, with their outlandishly decadent productions with titles like Journey To The Center Of Uranus, Tinsel Tarts In A Hot Coma and Gone With The Showboat To Oklahoma. Besides Hibiscus, two notable Cockettes were the disco diva darling Sylvester and the “queen of filth” Divine, who sang “If there’s a crab on Uranus you know you’ve been loved” while dressed as a crab.
When the Cockettes wanted to start charging for their shows, Hibiscus left, believing all shows should be free, and formed the Angels Of Light, giving free performances in the early 1970s in San Francisco and New York City. After moving back to NYC, Hibiscus put together a series of Off-Off-Broadway revues. He also appeared in a daytime soap opera under his real name. In the early 1980s, he and his sisters Jayne Anne, Eloise and Mary Lou and brother Fred Harris, formed the glitter rock band Hibiscus And The Screaming Violets.
Hibiscus was taken by the plague on May 12, 1982 at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. He was a very early AIDS casualty: at the time of his death the new illness was still referred to as GRID (Gay-related Immune Deficiency).
Bernie Boston studied at the School of Aviation Medicine in the U.S. Air Force. He served for two years in Germany practicing radiology in a neurosurgical unit. In 1958, he left the Army and returned to his native Washington DC, working in custom photofinishing and as a freelance photographer, before joining the staff of the Washington Star. Within two years, he became the director of photography for the paper. He stayed with the paper until it closed in 1981. He then went to work for the Los Angeles Times.
Flower Power nominated for the 1967 Pulitzer Prize.
In 1967, the same year he captured Flower Power, Boston was commissioned to shoot a portrait of former Black Panther H. Rap Brown. Noting the trend of a call for Civil Rights, Boston shot portraits of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. during his Poor People’s Campaign.
Boston also photographed every American president from Harry S. Truman to William Jefferson Clinton. He taught photojournalism at Rochester Institute of Technology. Boston died in 2008, taken by amyloidosis, a rare blood disease with which he had been diagnosed in 2006.
The Flower Power movement became a symbolic protest against the Vietnam War. Gay Beat Generation writer Allen Ginsberg promoted the use of “masses of flowers” to hand to policemen, press, politicians and spectators to fight violence with peace, intending to show that the movement was not associated with anger or violence.
Flower Power continues to be used as one of the most iconic images of the 1960s.