In January 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ civil rights activism during his college years became a matter of dispute following a rumor — proved to be false — that an iconic photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the famous 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama captured a young Sanders among the marchers.
Soon afterwards, another photograph emerged that was said to show Sanders speaking to students on the first day of a sit-in at the University of Chicago in 1962:
— WE the People! (@madman12373) February 11, 2016
This picture, too, was disclaimed by multiple sources as one that pictured not Sanders himself, but someone who superficially resembed Sanders. Jonathan Capehart, for exampled, authored a Washington Post blog entry titled “Stop sending around this photo of ‘Bernie Sanders'” in which he declared “that’s not Bernie Sanders in the photo. It is Bruce Rappaport,” referencing an article on the subject from TIME magazine:
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.
This wasn’t just a case of misattribution by some anonymous detached onlooker viewing a photograph years after the fact and deciding that one the persons pictured looked like the Vermont senator — Sanders himself had long been using the picture as part of his biographical material:
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.”
Prominent civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (who suffered injuries during the Selma march) also cast doubt on the attribution when he offered comment on the civil rights movement and averred that he never saw or met Sanders during the course of his own activism:
Democratic Rep. John Lewis 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:
Capehart published a follow-up blog post, that included objections raised by photographer Danny Lyon (who snapped the disputed picture) but stopped short of retracting his original claim. Lyon described Capehart’s earlier piece as “outrageous,” saying that the image in question was part of a larger set and undeniably depicted Sanders, not fellow student activist Bruce Rappaport:
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 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 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 in a piece published on 2 February 2016:
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.”
Lyon soon shared more images from his photo set documenting the identification of Sanders, with the photograph on the bottom left in particular bearing a striking resemblance to the 2016 presidential candidated:
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.
By contrast, photographs shared by TIME magazine showed clearly marked differences between Rappaport and Sanders:
Photographer Danny Lyon said he was well acquainted with the individuals depicted in his photographs:
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.
Lyon also published a third post about the controversy detailing his acquaintance with Rep. John Lewis, whom Lyon claimed he convinced shift his endorsement from Hillary Clinton to Barack 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.
Nonetheless, Capehart wasn’t convinced by the evidence and account provided by Lyon, citing Rappaport’s former wife, Randy Ross. Ross admitted that Lyon was present for the sit-in in question while she was not but maintained that 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 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!”
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, 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.”
Interest in the controversy was reignited following a late February 2016 endorsement of Sanders by rapper Killer Mike (which featured archival shots of Sanders protesting):
Despite the release of additional photographs, multiple statements from Lyon, and a correction appended by the University of Chicago, the original Washington Post blog post remained intact with only a vague update noting that “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 image.