Monday, May 28, 2018

Mystery photo of 1968

It may not be as well-known as some other iconic images -- say, the infamous V-J Day kiss -- but it captures a singular moment all the same: a white woman and a black man, knee-deep in the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln memorial, both raising their arms in solidarity as the Poor People's Campaign of 1968 rallied in Washington DC. Organized by the SCLC, with Ralph Abernathy taking the helm after the assassination of Martin Luther King, it had many parts -- meetings and rallies in small towns, particularly in the South, a mule-drawn "wagon train" to the nation's capital, and an encampment known as "Resurrection City." Their arrival coincided with a heatwave in DC, and so the entry into the reflecting pool was as much a way to cool down as to mark the moment -- but of course it became both.

The photo, according to a recent article in the Washington Post, was taken by labor organizer Richard Bensinger, and he's spent the past 50 years trying to track down the people in it, without success. And yet, armed with the digital resources of today, the odds have been significantly improved, and I've made tentative identification of the woman on the left: she may quite possibly be Lisa Cusumano. I found a photo of her in a digitized copy of an old SCLC publication, The Poor People's Campaign: A Photographic Journal. She stands out, not only as one of the relatively few white activists in the pamphlet, but because her attire -- though not her expression -- is similar in some regards. In both images, she's wearing two distinctive buttons designed for the Poor People's Campaign, and in both the buttons are high up, near or on her collar.

Ms. Cusumano had already made a name for herself as an activist earlier that year when, in support of striking trash collectors in New York City, she launched trash-cans like missiles into the street, leading to her arrest. She was described at the time as a 23-year-old single mother.  At a number of rallies and events, including after the PPC reached Washington, her voice stood out and was quoted, and she was also credited with a poem, "Children of the Universe," published by the SCLC Information Center in July of 1968. Although the woman in the reflecting pool image looks a lot more relaxed and less angry than the Linda Cusumano seen in these other photos, I think it's a reasonable possibility that she may be the same person.

UPDATE: The mystery -- or at least half of it -- has now been solved!

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