The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a 50-year-old photo mystery was solved. Well, at least half of it.

After 50 years, a photographer meets a subject he photographed amid the rebellious chaos of the weeks-long Poor People’s Campaign (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Late one night inside an art-filled home on a tranquil parkway in Silver Spring, Md., a woman decided to take her laptop to bed with her. She clicked on a story about an old picture. Her eyes widened.

“No,” Michele Holzman thought to herself. “That couldn’t be me. Could it?”

The article, published in late May in The Washington Post, told the story of a remarkable photograph taken by a teenager at the Poor People’s Campaign demonstration that took over the Mall in the summer of 1968. The image — depicting a young African American man and a young white woman splashing through the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool — had never been published.

But it had hung on a wall at the home of the photographer, Richard Bensinger, who would go on to become a nationally known labor leader, as well as in the homes of his sister and brother-in-law, both prominent law professors. For decades, visitors to their homes — activists, labor leaders, law students, attorneys — had been transfixed by the scene. The image had been an inspiration to Bensinger, a source of solace during the most demoralizing days of his battles on behalf of workers. He had spent years trying, to no avail, to identify the photo’s subjects.

The Post article about Bensinger’s photo triggered an outpouring of interest. Hundreds of people posted it on the Internet and sent in guesses. For some, the photo evoked the memorable scene in the film “Forrest Gump,” when the title character played by Tom Hanks splashes into the pool to embrace his dear friend Jenny, portrayed by Robin Wright.

A college professor scoured old Southern Poverty Law Center publications and wondered whether the woman might be prominent ’60s-era activist Lisa Cusumano. Others scrutinized ancient photos and guessed the woman is civil rights activist Heather Booth or feminist writer Kate Millett.

Still others hoped that the photo would remain a mystery. A commenter on The Post’s website drew a comparison to the Tomb of the Unknowns. Few speculated about the identity of the man, whose face was somewhat more obscured by shadows.

None of this registered with Holzman, 73, as she sat reading the article in Silver Spring. She lives in a kind of blissfully retro information universe. Holzman reads the newspaper and has NPR playing all day, but she has no television or social-media accounts.

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

She mulled the image, turning it over and over in her head. She dug through old photographs. Her mind swarmed with the emotions and memories of that day.

She waited awhile; she is not one to rush. But on the Fourth of July, right after returning home from a gun-control demonstration, infused with the spirit of that bygone day on the Mall, she picked up the phone and called Bensinger’s house.

After 50 years, Holzman’s recollections of that day and that remarkable time in American history are flecked with crystalline detail. The skirt she wore. The blouse. That watch. The song they were singing.

In interviews, Holzman, the daughter of a French woman and a Chinese Hawaiian man, recounted how she’d grown up in Hawaii and was raised by her Chinese grandparents. She moved to the Washington area in the 1960s with her then-husband.

They abhorred the conflict in Vietnam, and often attended antiwar rallies. Once, she said, they were tear-gassed in Lafayette Square, across from the White House.

In the spring of 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign settled onto the Mall for a weeks-long encampment, realizing the dream of the recently assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., who had envisioned the demonstration as a way of pressuring the government to do more to end poverty. Holzman was working for a government contractor involved with anti-poverty programs for the Office of Economic Opportunity. Postmarked letters from 1968, stored in an old trunk, confirmed Holzman’s addresses in the months before and after the demonstration. Contemporaneous photos leave little doubt that she is the woman in Bensinger’s picture.

During the demonstration, volunteers were asked to bring meals to the protesters, who were living in tents on the Mall. One blistering hot day, Holzman said, she and several co-workers gathered food and made their way to the Lincoln Memorial from their downtown office on 19th Street NW.

The forgotten dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

After she arrived, Holzman said, she suddenly noticed a commotion. Hundreds of people were jumping into the Reflecting Pool. Her friends told her she would be crazy to join them. She had just bought a pair of leather sandals at a shop in Georgetown. They told her she’d ruin them.

But Holzman — then and now — is the sort of person who is open to experience; her reminiscences are sprinkled with references to “lost weekends” at a friend’s place in France’s Languedoc and the elaborate costumes she would wear for her ritual trips to celebrate Mardi Gras. Back then, she thought to herself: “When am I ever going to get to go into the pool?”

She plunged in. Within moments a young man came splashing over to her. At first, she recalled, she felt awkward. But when people started singing the gospel hymn “Amen,” she was put at ease, and went splashing down the length of the shallow pool. She doesn’t remember exchanging more than a word or two with the young man. If she got his name, she long ago forgot it.

For her, that day was a joyous, spontaneous moment. Yet, at the time, nothing about the experience made her think it was so remarkable that she would be talking about it half a century later. She hadn’t even noticed the skinny kid from Louisville standing there in the pool with a camera when she went by.

She went on with her life.

Over most of the next 50 years, Holzman and Bensinger, now 67, would live just a few miles from each other. He in the Northern Virginia suburbs; she in Silver Spring in between stints living abroad with her husband, who became a Foreign Service officer, and after her divorce, with her then-domestic partner in Switzerland. On the walls of her home, lush original oil paintings by prominent artists share space with her own creations.

In the ensuing years, Bensinger became one of the nation’s most significant labor leaders, founding the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute. Holzman had an entrepreneurial bent, owning a pharmacy in Pennsylvania and, in the early 1990s, co-owning a natural cosmetics store in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. She sometimes hosted political fundraisers.

Bensinger and Holzman had traveled on parallel paths, attending the same sorts of demonstrations, supporting the same sorts of candidates. They might have passed each other on the street a dozen times. How could they have known they were linked?

At The Post’s invitation, Holzman and Bensinger met on a recent afternoon, almost precisely 50 years after the day that Bensinger took her photo. Outside The Post’s downtown offices, Holzman pulled up in her hybrid four-seater and waited for the man she had been inspiring without knowing it.

When Bensinger walked up, Holzman was smiling — the same, unmistakable, utterly infectious expression that she has in that long-ago photo. No longer the longhair, 5-foot-5 kid who snapped the picture, Bensinger stands 6 feet tall. He’s graying now, his long 1960s locks gone, having ceded territory to time. He leaned down, swallowing the diminutive Holzman in a long embrace. He was meeting his mystery.

“It’s surreal,” he kept saying, his heart racing. “Crazy, crazy, crazy.”

He had sometimes worried that the people in the photo would have drifted from the ideals embodied on that day on the Mall, that they would have grown cynical about the prospects for racial equality and economic justice. Meeting Holzman erased those worries.

Like that day long ago, the sun beat down unrelentingly. The temperature rose to 98 — the highest of the year. Still, they returned to the Mall, where their lives had unwittingly intertwined, if only for an instant.

At the Reflecting Pool, they found themselves talking as much about the future as the past. Bensinger resolved to find the young man in the photo, hoping to fill in another blank in his mystery. Holzman remarked how she had resolved to play a role in shaping the world around her — but to do so with a sense of optimism and joy, not in anger.

“I think the important thing is to be part of the world,” Holzman said.

She spoke of her intentions to push for environmental protections to preserve the planet — not so much for herself but for her grandchildren. Bensinger raved about the activism of young people these days.

“I’ve never seen more interest in social justice in my career,” he said. “It’s a moment again.”

Holzman interjected, finishing his sentence for him: “Like the ’60s!”