The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 50-year-old mystery: Who’s that wading in the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool?

Who was this unidentified pair wading in the Reflecting Pool on the Mall during the weeks-long Poor People's Campaign in 1968? (Richard Bensinger)

They’d shot RFK. They’d shot MLK.

The world made no sense. The kid felt sad — so very, very sad.

But from his vantage point, cushioned a bit from the madness behind a camera lens, that woe-stricken 17-year-old from Louisville saw something that changed him, something that would stay with him.

Two dancing figures appeared in the viewfinder of his little Pentax camera. A young white woman. A young black man. Not much older than him. They sloshed through the Reflecting Pool amid the joyous, rebellious chaos of the weeks-long Poor People’s Campaign demonstration that overtook the Mall in May and June of 1968.

And they were singing.

“Amen. Ay-ay-men. Amen. Amen. Amen.”

Words flashed through Richard Bensinger’s mind. “Freedom.” “Love.” He tapped the shutter, freezing a moment of hope, of promise. In the image that he would later watch come to life in a darkroom, he saw two young people who embody an easy, natural joy as they wade waist-deep through the placid waters. Somehow, the hobbyist photographer had them perfectly centered. Apart from hundreds of demonstrators making the same soggy trek, but not separated in spirit. In the background, the Lincoln Memorial rises in the haze of a sticky Washington spring.

Bensinger had no idea at the time, but he had just minted a magical, transfixing image. It would become his companion over the decades, a source of inspiration, but also a mystery. An obsession.

Who were the people in that amazing picture? What became of them? Did their lives fulfill the optimism he saw on their faces on that long-ago day when a sad kid with a camera attended the first protest of his life?

He had to know.

The story of the quest undertaken by Bensinger — who would grow up to become one of the nation’s best-known labor organizers — is not the saga of a famous photograph. He never published the image. He never won a prize. Instead, it’s a kind of meditation on how an image can root itself in one American family. It’s about the stories we build for ourselves about the people who flicker through our lives — here for an instant, then never to be seen again.

The current chapter in Bensinger’s journey coincides with our season of national remembrance — half a century removed from the hope and searing pain of a staggeringly consequential year that saw millions drawn to the civil rights movement but that was also jolted by the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

At home in McLean, Va., Bensinger, now 67, and his wife, Virginia Diamond, 59, were newly energized to unravel the story of the young people in his photograph after ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign, which had been the brainchild of King and continued after his death with the encampment on the Mall, was intended to spur government action on poverty. Those ideas are being reinvigorated now with efforts to launch a modern-day Poor People’s Campaign spearheaded by the North Carolina pastor William Barber.

According to the Poor People’s Campaign leaders, the poor are truly America’s forgotten men and women

In 1968, Bensinger was struggling to cope with the deaths of Kennedy and King, men he considered heroes. He got a call from his sister, Carol Liebman, who had moved to Washington because her husband, Lance Liebman, had been selected as a clerk for then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White. Bensinger was her “wonderful, long-haired” younger sibling, she says in an interview, and she thought it’d be good for him to see the Poor People’s Campaign demonstration site, known as Resurrection City.

Bensinger had never been to a protest. Afterward, he went home with a mind freshly blown, and one other thing: a roll of undeveloped film.

Months passed before he saw the sublime image he’d captured that day. At college in Colorado, he got access to a darkroom and made a print for his sister.

The things he’d seen that day on the Mall infused him with a kind of fire. He started working at a sporting goods factory, and when he saw the conditions there, he says, it “triggered in me the Poor People’s Campaign and inspired me to get involved.” He helped organize a union. A labor leader was born.

On the other side of the country, the print he’d made for his sister ended up in a place of honor at her home in the Boston area, where her husband had joined the faculty at Harvard University. She’d look at it and wonder: “Have their lives fulfilled the optimism, hope and energy of that photograph?”

Students and friends were forever stopping and gazing.

What was interesting to Liebman was the conversations that followed, especially with the younger students. They’d heard of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963, but any mention of the Poor People’s Campaign often drew a blank stare.

The forgotten dream of Martin Luther King Jr.

Liebman, who has since moved with her husband to New York, where she is a member of the faculty at Columbia University’s law school, found herself constructing scenarios: “Someone will come in and say: ‘That’s my mother! That’s my cousin! That’s my sister!’ ”

But no one did.

It was left to Liebman and her brother, and the rest of the people in their lives, to fill in the blanks, to impose their aspirations on the images before them.

“You could write short stories about them,” Liebman says.

In Bensinger’s version, “these are people who have lived a righteous, just life,” he says one recent afternoon at his woodsy home.

“She could be a schoolteacher, and he could be a factory worker,” says the man who has spent his life organizing unions.

“Maybe they became lifelong friends!” Bensinger’s wife chimes in.

“Maybe they got married, had kids,” says Bensinger, who returned to the scene of his photograph in the mid-1980s to propose to Diamond at the Lincoln Memorial.

Bensinger wondered whether the march had changed the young pair in his photo like it had changed him. Over the years, as Bensinger’s and Diamond’s curiosity has grown, the photo has been shuttled up and down the East Coast. Bensinger had lost the negative during an itinerant career that has included leadership roles at the AFL-CIO, as well as founding the union’s high-profile training operation known as the Organizing Institute.

Bensinger took the photo to National Geographic to have it enlarged, and he hung it in his sun-splashed den. The room is filled with chairs for the meetings, including local political fundraisers, that he and his wife frequently host. Maybe, he thought, someone at one of those get-togethers would know the identities of the people in the photo.

His wife posted the picture on Facebook. “We got a lot of likes,” she says. But no one could name the young people who had become so deeply ingrained in their lives.

They studied the image for clues. The young woman in the photo is wearing a badge that says: “Hello! My name is.” But the reflection of the sun obscured her name. Bensinger figured she must have been a volunteer.

That insight was on Bensinger’s mind in fall 2013 when, as he is wont to do, he was chatting about his photograph after giving a speech about union organizing at the National Press Club. Among those he met that day was a man named Dennis M. Collins.

Collins was involved in the civil rights movement, and he knew lots of the people connected to the Poor People’s Campaign. He thought he might be able to help.

Bensinger set about getting a copy of the photo for Collins to peruse. But not long afterward, he got some bad news: Collins had died suddenly.

They never got to look at the photograph together.

Bensinger resolved not to give up. Four and a half years later, he’s still searching.