In February 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' early civil rights activism became a matter of dispute following earlier rumors that Sanders was shown in an iconic 1965 photo at a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
The emergence of contested photos led many to infer that all images purported to be of Sanders during the Civil Rights era were misattributed. Not long after that debate, the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart wrote a piece ("Stop sending around this photo of 'Bernie Sanders'"), which referenced an article in TIME (since updated):
There was just one problem: Four University of Chicago alumni who went to school with Sanders tell TIME they believe that the dramatic photo of Sanders, which his campaign has featured on its website and in a promotional video, is not in fact a photograph of Sanders. An archivist at the University of Chicago agreed in January that Sanders was not the speaker in the photo, though the school’s official decision on the man’s identity is still pending. (Since this story was published, the photographer unearthed new evidence that the man in question is Sanders.)
In his Washington Post piece, Capehart reiterated TIME's claim (later amended) that the images did not depict Bernie Sanders:
The compelling picture can be found in the senator’s biographical video on his campaign website. “At the University of Chicago,” Sanders says as the photo fades in and out, “I got involved in the civil rights movement. We ended up engaging in a sit-in demonstration.” It’s on the campaign’s Tumblr feed. “As the Civil Rights Movement grew, Bernie led a sit-in to desegregate off-campus housing at the University of Chicago,” reads the timeline under 1962. And Sanders used it in a stirring 2013 video to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. “I remember the day very well and I remember the moment, the period well,” he says as the photo passes by, “because up at the University of Chicago, where I was then going to school, we were working with young people in the South.” But that’s not Bernie Sanders in the photo. It is Bruce Rappaport.
On the same day that Capehart's original piece was published, Rep. John Lewis commented separately on Sanders' involvement with the Civil Rights movement. Lewis (who suffered injuries during the Selma march) told press he "never saw" Sanders during the course of his own activism:
Democratic Rep. John Lewis on Thursday questioned the extent of Bernie Sanders' participation in the civil rights movement after an event where the Congressional Black Caucus political action committee endorsed Hillary Clinton. Sanders has frequently talked up his history as an activist while he was at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and touted his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But Lewis, a civil rights icon and leader of SNCC said he never saw Sanders at any events. "I never saw him. I never met him," Lewis said. "I was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963 to 1966. I was involved with the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery and directed (the) voter education project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President (Bill) Clinton."
Supporters of Sanders were quick to respond with other photographic examples of the candidate engaged in activism during the Civil Rights era. One was an image of a young Sanders chained to a black woman during housing protests, and another depicted him vigorously resisting arrest:
On 13 February 2016 Capehart published a follow-up editorial, which included ongoing objections raised by Danny Lyon but stopped short of retracting his original claim. Lyon, who took the disputed photographs, described the earlier piece as "outrageous," saying that the single image was part of a larger set -- a set that undoubtedly depicted Sanders, not Rappaport. Capehart wrote:
I can’t fault the famed civil rights-era photographer’s reaction. Unbeknownst to me until after my post was published, Lyon told book publisher Phaidon earlier this month that Sanders is indeed the person he photographed. Then, in response to my blog post, Lyon took to his blog with what he said were “newly discovered pictures” from contact sheets from the same roll of film he used 54 years ago.
“My negatives were lost,” Lyon told me. But a few nights ago while packing for a trip, he said that in a “little can” that rolled out, “I find 4 or 5 contact sheets and there’s this picture of this sit-in.” No longer are we seeing a person in profile. We see a face. “You look at that strip, the one on the left is that vertical shot and you see him,” Lyon said. “Same sweater, shoes, pants, shirt and he’s sitting on the ground. That’s Bernie Sanders.”
Lyon's comments were in line with remarks he made about the dispute, published on 2 February 2016 (after TIME's article, but before Capehart's Washington Post piece):
I took the photograph of Bernie Sanders speaking to his fellow CORE members at that sit-in. Bob McNamara, a close friend and CORE activist, is in the very corner next to me in the picture. Across the room from me is another campus photographer named Wexler, who taught me how to develop film.
I photographed Bernie a second time after he got a haircut, as he appeared next to the noble laureate and chancellor Dr. George Beadle. Time Magazine is now claiming it is not Bernie in the picture but someone else. It is Bernie, and it is proof of his very early dedication to justice for African Americans. The CORE sit-in that Bernie helped lead was the first civil rights sit-in to take place in the North."
Those comments came after blog posts by Lyon, in which he shared more images from his photo set and wrote:
The slander that Bernie was not a very early leader for African American civil rights got so outrageous that persons went into the archives of the University of Chicago and changed captions on Danny Lyon’s 1962 photos, claiming it was Bruce Rappaport standing in Bernie’s clothing leading the demonstration in the Ad Building. These newly discovered pictures, including close up photographs of the student activists show us exactly what Bernie was and what he remains.
The photograph on the bottom left in particular bears striking resemblance to Sanders today. By contrast, there were clearly marked differences between Sanders and Rappaport in the photos shared by TIME in 2015:
In an earlier post, Lyon said he was well acquainted with the individuals depicted in the photos:
I took the photograph of Bernie Sanders speaking to his fellow CORE members at that sit-in. Bob McNamara, a close friend and CORE activist, is in the very corner next to me in the picture. Across the room from me is another campus photographer named Wexler, who taught me how to develop film. I photographed Bernie a second time after he got a haircut, as he appeared next to the noble laureate and chancellor Dr. George Beadle. Time Magazine is now claiming it is not Bernie in the picture but someone else. It is Bernie, and it is proof of his very early dedication to justice for African Americans. The CORE sit-in that Bernie helped lead was the first civil rights sit-in to take place in the North.
On 13 February 2016, Lyon published a third post about the controversy, which detailed his acquaintance with Rep. John Lewis. Lyon claimed he convinced Lewis to shift his endorsement from Clinton to President Obama:
In the last campaign when Hillary ran against President Obama, John supported Hillary. I was fishing on the Hudson when I reached John on my cell. “John” I said, “You’ve got to switch. You can create the first black president of the United States.” John said he’d been getting a lot of calls and there would “be an announcement soon.” A week later John switched his support to Barack Obama.
Capehart wasn't convinced by the evidence and account Lyon produced, however, and referenced Rappaport's former wife, Randy Ross. Ross admitted that Lyon was present for the sit-in in question while she was not, but maintained she recognized Rappaport (who died in 2006) in the photograph:
“I really respect Danny Lyon. I mean, he did wonderful work over many years,” Randy Ross told me Friday after reading Lyon’s comments to Phaidon. “I’m a hundred percent sure that he’s wrong.” When I pressed Ross on her certainty, she said, “I’m certain he’s wrong. I mean, I was married to Bruce, I went out with him for a year, then I was married to him for five years ... Since I wasn’t in the room that day of the sit-in, they (University archivists) may believe in balance that Danny [Lyon]’s word is more believable than mine. After all, I was just married to the guy!”
He concluded by saying that the University of Chicago corrected the erroneous re-captioning:
Unfortunately for [Ross and others who disputed the caption], opinion has turned against them. With little fanfare and without returning my subsequent call and email on Friday, the University of Chicago, which changed the caption to Rappaport in January, switched it back to read, “Bernie Sanders speaks on the first day of the Committee on Racial Equality’s sit-in at the office of University.”
On 13 February 2016, Sanders spokesman Jeff Weaver told members of the press that the campaign was "100% certain" the images were of Bernie Sanders. Lyon released the larger set of photographs, viewable here. Interest in the controversy was reignited following a late February 2016 endorsement of Sanders by rapper Killer Mike (which featured archival footage of Sanders protesting):
Despite the release of additional photographs, multiple statements by Lyon, and a correction appended by the University of Chicago, the original Washington Post item remained intact with a vague update:
Update: I’ve heard conflicting testimonies from Danny Lyon, the photographer, and Randy Ross, Bruce Rappaport’s ex-wife.
However, the release of the additional photographs left little doubt as to whether it was Bernie Sanders depicted in the controversial photograph.