“To be honest we are not 100% sure if it is or not.” — Tad Devine, strategist for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
“That’s Bernie Sanders.” — Danny Lyon, photographer
“I’m a hundred percent sure that Danny is wrong.” — Randy Ross, ex-wife of Bruce Rappaport
This is a story where memory and historical certitude clash. Where the doubt of a campaign strategist slams up against a university archive. Where the word of a proud photographer conflicts with the pride of an ex-wife and friends. Where the civil rights activism of Bernie Sanders and Bruce Rappaport collide.
All hell broke loose when I wrote Thursday that folks should “stop sending around this photo of ‘Bernie Sanders.’ ” That’s the now-famous one of a dark-haired, bespectacled student leader addressing a sit-in at the University of Chicago. Devine gave the piece life when told me on Wednesday, “To be honest we are not 100% sure if it is or not.” This was after officials at the University of Chicago confirmed to me that the caption on the 1962 photo was changed in January from Sanders to Rappaport after a number of alumni came forward last year to insist that the young man in question was not the former but the latter.
“I thought your piece was outrageous,” Danny Lyon told me when we spoke on Friday.
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.” He explained further:
So [the contact sheets] are in chronological order, like dominoes that you cannot move, 1 to 36. In other words, Bernie standing talking is number like 7, 8 and 9. Bernie sitting down is number 10. And those three close-ups are 11, 12 and 13. They are on the same roll of film in sequence, shot in that room on that day by me.
I’m also one of the most highly regarded documentarians in America. In other words this is not just some snapshot. And I think it’s important for you understand that. I’m the campus photographer and I’ve become THE movement photographer. There’s a book called “Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.” You should Google it just to see. Meaning, most of the famous iconic pictures of the civil rights movement were made by me.
“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.”
Ross was 19 years old when she eloped with Rappaport. Like the man she married, the Long Island native was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. “My first demonstration was walking around Woolworths at the age of 15 in Freeport,” she told me Friday. “So the first thing I did when I got to Chicago was to join campus CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] and then I met Bruce.”
Ross saw the disputed photo while watching a replay of the Democratic forum hosted by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who showed it to Sanders. “Who is that handsome young guy with the dark hair?” he asked rhetorically as he looked up at the photo to much laughter. But Ross had a different reaction. “The picture flashes up there and I, before she said a word, I said, ‘Oh my God! That’s Bruce!’ ” She told me in a later email, “The proof to me is Bruce’s longer neck and the angle forward of his head, a very characteristic position.”
During our phone conversation, Ross said, “I know that memory can fail us and I don’t remember lots of details from my youth.” So I asked her what she would say to people, especially Sanders supporters enraged by the photo controversy, who might say her memory has indeed failed. “I would say I think there’s a very big difference of having been married to somebody for a number of years and having barely known them or known them only as an acquaintance, you know, through a movement situation or a sit-in,” she said. “I mean, I think it’s even more different than apples and oranges. We’re talking alligators and apples here. It’s just not the same thing.”
The new close-up photos found by Lyon certainly do look like a young, earnest Sanders. But I’m also inclined to agree with Tara Ganguly, who told me, “Those photos are at such different angles that it seems impossible to compare them to the one in question.” Ganguly is Ross’s daughter, whose tweet in response to my initial piece alerted me to her mother’s existence and willingness to talk.
“You don’t forget those kinds of things. You know, the angle of his body. I just knew it was him. And when I could see the close-up, when I got to the picture and could kind of enlarge it, I was a hundred percent sure it’s him. It just is,” Ross said about seeing the photo shown on MSNBC. “And various people who knew him at the University of Chicago, including his roommate who was at our wedding and who was in that photograph.”
That roommate was Bruce Stark. He is the African American student with the glasses and hair parted on the side gazing up at Rappaport. “I’m looking very concerned and confused,” Stark told me with a little chuckle Saturday. Like Ross, he is certain that the man in the picture is his old college roommate. “That’s Bruce in that photograph,” he said. “If I had to go to the guillotine over if it was Bruce or Bernie, I would say it was Bruce.”
“My recognition was immediate, and largely based on the slight curvature of his spine and his gestures,” Richard Schmitt, a classmate who led the effort to get the caption on the disputed picture changed, told me Friday. He has been waging this effort for more than a year, going so far as to compare the earlobes of Sanders and Rappaport in emails with university officials.
“All that I wanted to accomplish,” he said, “was to correct a mistake, furthermore one that had the effect of erasing Bruce Rappaport from the record.” Ross is eager to have Rappaport’s role remembered, as well.
“I also spent my life as a civil rights person. . . . So my commitment to the truth around people’s history is important. Bruce Rappaport did really important work on his own,” Ross said. “He’s an important person in his own right. And sadly he died very, very young, in his mid-60s. And I just feel like the record should be set straight about him.”
The fascinating thing I learned in all this is that every person I spoke with is supporting Sanders’s campaign for president. “I’m for Bernie, by the way. I think we need him.” Lyon told me. “I will vote for Bernie, despite misgivings around his superficial understanding of some major issues,” said Ross, who like Lyon is put off by Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy stances. “It hurts me that a lot of black people don’t know Bernie’s civil rights record,” Stark said about Sanders. “God bless him. I will send him more money.”
“I have no skin in this game (and wasn’t even a blink in my mother’s eye when this all happened), but as a Sanders supporter and a lawyer who thinks facts are important, I don’t understand why so many Bernie folks are getting so bent out of shape over this,” Ross’s daughter Ganguly told me via email. “He was clearly part of the movement — he just was wasn’t in ONE photo the campaign is wrongfully using. It’s clear why they’re using it — it’s a powerful photo — but if they dig in their heels on this relatively small matter it doesn’t bode well for his candidacy. You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own facts.”
Unfortunately for Ganguly, Ross, Schmitt and Stark, 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.”
“As I’ve said before, I do believe Bruce Stark should be the final word on this,” Ross told me via email after being informed that the caption had been changed again, from Rappaport to Sanders. “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!”
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj