The Story of a Photograph

The Story of a Photograph

Ernest Withers, the man who took the photograph of the Denison students and King, was a prominent civil rights photographer. He died in 2007, but his name began to appear in the media again in 2010 when it was revealed that he had spent two years–from 1968 to 1970–as a paid FBI informant reporting on civil rights activities and leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

It's an unpromising photograph at first, a jumble of people in an ordinary setting–you might even disregard it without noticing the unmistakable figure of Martin Luther King, Jr. He's moving forward, about to walk past the photographer, and it looks like his mind is already on whatever comes next. This is a busy day for him. Just behind his right shoulder is the young Jesse Jackson, his cuffs rolled up at the ankle, and Ralph Abernathy beside him, smiling and looking toward the small group in the foreground. The convergence of these three men anchors the scene in time, as do the white shirts and ties, and the skirts and sweaters on the women.

The year is 1968.

You won't recognize the other people in the photo. The spare woman in a cardigan, looking guardedly at the camera, is Virgie Hortenstine, and she's responsible for the three young people closely surrounding her. She brought them to this place in her station wagon from Granville, Ohio. They're sophomores at Denison University, class of 1970, and they're a little astonished to have just been introduced to King, Jackson, and Abernathy. The students shook hands, exchanged a few words, and gave King a copy of the Fayette-Haywood Workcamp newsletter, which he's holding in his left hand.

The young woman with the white headband, gazing in the same direction as King, is Kathleen Pichola from Elyria, Ohio. The young man beside Virgie is Hank Vyner from Baltimore, Md., and in the flowered skirt, her shoulder turned to the camera, is Marian Bausch from Ross, Ohio. While most of their college friends are at home with their families or in Florida for the week, this is how these three students are spending their spring break. The date is April 3rd, and the place is Memphis, Tennessee.

Later this same evening, Hortenstine, Pichola, Bausch, and Vyner will be sitting in the tightly-packed Mason Temple in Memphis, a wild thunderstorm rattling the windowpanes as King declares to the assembled crowd, "I've been to the mountaintop." By the following evening, Martin Luther King, Jr. will be dead, and the three Denison students will have returned north to their families, with a lifetime ahead to think back on this moment captured on film, and the events and era surrounding it.

Pichola, Vyner, and Bausch were in Memphis that night because of a poster on the bulletin board in Slayter Student Union three months earlier, announcing a meeting for students interested in something called the "Fayette Haywood Workcamps" over spring break.

Virgie Hortenstine was there to talk with the small group of students who turned up. She was a Quaker peace activist from Cincinnati who was looking for volunteer workers for a program in rural Fayette and Haywood Counties in Tennessee. Students who signed on would live with black sharecropper families, doing some teaching, voter registration–whatever they could help with over a short few days. Hortenstine was rather small in stature but persuasive; the students later learned that she had been a national figure in the American Friends Service movement. Vyner, Bausch, and Pichola weren't entirely sure what they were getting into, but this looked like a chance to go somewhere different over spring break and to do something useful.

Bausch grew up in a very small, very white agricultural setting, a place where all 12 grades were housed in one school. Her mother, a Denison alumna, raised her with the values of equality in a place where race wasn't a first-hand experience. Pichola came from a large integrated public high school in a mostly blue-collar town, where a mix of races in the workplace and community was the norm. She was the first in her family to attend college.

Both women were used to academic success in high school and both recall the shock they felt when they discovered how hard they had to work to keep their heads above water in college. They also found themselves swimming in an unfamiliar social culture. Both came to realize that the then-dominant Greek social scene was not the best fit for them (Pichola was an Alpha Phi, but later deactivated; Bausch was a Tri Delt), so they found other directions and interests, too. Bausch played the guitar, and both she and Pichola were avid fans of folk music.

Vyner's East Coast background put him on more familiar footing with the social culture of Denison when he arrived in 1966. He joined a fraternity, but was conscious of wanting to define himself on his own terms, apart from his upbringing. He found like-minded friends, but there were few opportunities for involvement beyond the mainstream social activities. "Denison was not in any way a hotbed of political activism when I was a student there, even in the 60s," he says. Bausch adds: "I believe Esquire Magazine made a comment at that time, that Denison was the only campus in America where the students were more conservative than the faculty."

Civil rights may not have been a burning issue on cam- pus, nor would the three students claim it was particularly so for them, but each was predisposed to care about social justice, something largely learned at home. "It was part of the air we breathed," said Vyner of his family's views. Bausch attended some small group discussions on civil rights with students and professors. She also remembers that there were only 13 black students at Denison at the time, who generally made up the larger part of those participating in the discussions. It was a time when the college was taking early and uneasy steps into race and diversity, an effort that was often uncomfortable. Her freshman year, Bausch was given the assignment in her journalism class to interview several African American students, "to find out why they had chosen Denison, what it was like to be in an 'all-white' environment, and how they liked it." She was shy, her subjects were understandably reticent, and she found the assignment excruciatingly awkward. But it sharpened her awareness of the reality of isolation for these few students, as well as the reality of unmindfulness in herself and other white students. Bausch realized there was much she didn't understand about racism. "I wanted to know more, and I wanted to be able to do something about it. I think that's why I decided to go to the workcamp."

Pichola describes her own motivation: "I was a Catholic girl who led a very sheltered life up until that point," she says. "I signed up because my best friend was interested, and it felt like an adventure, a way to see the world."

"I remember feeling like I was going into an alien and slightly dangerous country as we drove south towards Tennessee," says Vyner. The three rode with Hortenstine in her station wagon for the ten-hour trip from Granville to Fayette County, just west of Memphis. It was after dark when they arrived at the home of the sharecropper family where Pichola and Bausch were to stay. The reality of their adventure was suddenly there before them in the headlights: a landscape of dirt roads and cotton fields, and a small dwelling on concrete blocks. Inside lived a family of eleven. Vyner would be staying at a different farm, and as he and Hortenstine pulled away in the car, both girls remember thinking, "What have we gotten ourselves into?" The family was welcoming, and Bausch remembers struggling with their strong rural Tennessee accents at first, but they acclimated soon enough, and kept busy for the next few days with tasks like organizing a library at the local church and teaching.

Vyner says that living with the sharecroppers was an eye-opening experience, in a place that seemed "in no way a part of the 20th century." There was no indoor plumbing, they cooked and heated with a wood-burning stove, and he remembers that sweet smoky aroma permeating the sheets of his bed. He also recalls the warm friendliness and generosity of the family he lived with, and a memorable meal he was served of pig meat with the skin and bristles still on it.

After three days in rural Fayette County, Hortenstine contacted the students to let them know there was a change in plans. A widely publicized garbage workers' strike had been going on since January in nearby Memphis, and it had grown into a national flashpoint for civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been to Memphis several times, most recently the week before, when the non-violent march he led had gotten out of control. He was returning on Wednesday to lead a second march.

Vyner travelled with Hortenstine, and Pichola and Bausch rode to Memphis with a young African American man. He told them it would be dangerous if anyone saw two white women in a car with a black man, so he asked them to duck in their seats when they saw a car approaching. For Pichola, that moment was a shocking reminder that she was far from home.

This is the strike still remembered for the placards carried by sanitation workers that simply read, "I AM A MAN." "We joined the picket line and march for all of about ten minutes," Bausch recalls. "We were the only white people in a sea of black," says Pichola. "I don't remember being afraid, but excited ... like this was a parade." She expresses some embarrassment at her naiveté at the time, regarding current events, civil rights issues, and racism. "Either I had no clue of the dangers that we were in the midst of, or I was so aware that I was frozen." Pichola has done her homework in the years since, researching and studying the people and stories behind the history she had witnessed. "I learned that the National Guard was present and that the streets were lined with tanks and armed men. I have no recollection of that ... [but] I remember Virgie coming to pull us out of the march, very excited about our next event."

The students were taken to a brick church, Centenary Methodist, on McElmore Avenue where Rev. James Lawson was pastor.

Lawson was also serving as chairman of the sanitation workers' strike committee. King had just arrived in Memphis, his flight delayed by a bomb threat at takeoff, and he came directly to Lawson's church to address a luncheon of black businessmen. The men discussed the need for black people to support black business, for bank support of those businesses, and boycotting banks that wouldn't. "We were the only white people there," says Bausch. Vyner sat on a table at the back of the hall during the meeting, talking with Jesse Jackson who sat beside him. "I didn't realize who he was. And then King called him up to speak."

When the meeting ended, Hortenstine made introductions. Pichola can still hear Hortenstine's voice: "Kathleen, this is Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin, this is Kathleen Pichola." Pichola noted that his hands weren't much larger than her own. Bausch was next. "He was distracted by everything and everyone," she says, "but he was courteous and kind." Vyner adds, "I was, of course, excited, but I also remember feeling like I didn't deserve to be meeting this man."

They walked as a group out to the church parking lot, and that is when the photograph was taken. The photographer, Ernest Withers, caught the group in an candid moment as they were going their separate ways, and then took a second photo of Virgie with the three Denison students, none of whom can remember the camera or the photographer being there, in the disorienting wake of meeting King.

That evening was the meeting at the Mason Temple, where King would deliver a speech still remembered for its inspiring oratory as well as for a prescient awareness of his mortality. Rev. Ralph Abernathy was to have been the main speaker that night, but the crowd of 3,000 called for King to speak. Abernathy phoned him in his Lorraine Hotel room and convinced him to come and address the gathering.

"The hall was charged with an electricity that was irresistible," says Bausch. "I knew I was witnessing history, was a part of history." It had already been an eventful day, and the seats were hard and Pichola was tired, but the energy of the room carried her as she waited for King. She can still hear the sound of his voice rising and falling together with the lightning and thunder outside, which added to the drama. "His voice would draw you in and lift you up," she says. Pichola has listened to recordings of the speech many times since that night.

The next day, April 4th, Virgie Hortenstine took Pichola to the Memphis airport. It wasn't until Pichola arrived home that she heard, on her parents' television, the news of King's shooting. She was, of course, stunned, but she felt the additional weight of trying to process what she had just experienced over the previous few days and square that reality with the evening news. The abrupt shock of King's death left her with a feeling of unfinished business, the need to understand some purpose in having been in Memphis to witness that piece of history.

King's last speech in Memphis, Tenn., would later be considered prophetic as he talked about his own mortality and the threats against his life.
King's last speech in Memphis, Tenn., would later be considered prophetic as he talked about his own mortality and the threats against his life.

After four decades, she still sorts through those loose pieces that continue to haunt her. Pichola has returned to Memphis twice in recent years and found some of the landmarks she was looking for, but also found frustrating lapses in what she thought she remembered. She has read enough about those times and the last days of King’s life that she knows a clear line can’t be dependably drawn between what she really remembers and what she’s absorbed in the years since 1968.

After working as a school guidance counselor, Pichola got her Ph.D. in psychology and became a private practice therapist. She also works as an interfaith minister and storyteller. She thinks back on the world of turmoil during her college years, the passionate and committed youth of the 60s, and of Martin Luther King Jr. with positivity and still believes “the highest good that is in people will prevail.” Regarding her brush with civil rights history, she doesn’t consider herself an activist, but she’s willing to be described as an advocate. “My life’s work has been to help people grow into their own strength.”

Marian Bausch called her mother from the Cincinnati airport for a ride home that April 4th, and her mother was relieved to hear her voice. She told Bausch that King had been shot. “That was the first I heard of it. I couldn’t believe it. I had just met this man.” she says, “His whole life, his work, lay ahead of him. He couldn’t be dead.” The assassination tested her faith in human nature, and when Robert Kennedy was shot a few months later, her reaction was much more jaded. “I thought, yes, this is what happens to visionaries,” says Bausch. “This is what we do to people who can work change.” The following year, Bausch transferred to Wayne State University, worked as a substitute teacher in the Detroit schools, and learned some hard lessons in the classroom. “I had thought that learning the King’s English was the ticket out of poverty for African Americans,” she says. “It didn’t occur to me that not everyone wanted to be the standard middle class American. You have to picture this white girl, 20 years old, naïve and totally life-challenged, trying to teach students who were street-savvy and world-wise. I would end most days in tears.” She earned her teaching certificate but it was 10 years before she felt ready to take on teaching again, a career from which she recently retired. Bausch knows she’s had a positive effect on her students, and there’s much she’s grateful for, but her view looking back to 1968 is perhaps that of a disappointed idealist. “We knew everything in those days: We knew how wrong the war was. We knew how wrong racism was. We knew we could effect change. We couldn’t.” Even in her disillusionment, she admits to feeling a “reglimmer of hope” the night Barack Obama was elected president. After learning of the shooting, Hank Vyner hopped on a plane bound for Baltimore fearing things might get worse. His experience in Tennessee got him thinking about striving for non-violent change, and the following year, Woodstock became another watershed in his life, a revelation of large-scale cooperation and non- aggression in that peaceful, if muddy, gathering. “I came back to Denison that fall with that perspective firmly in mind,” and he helped organize a campus moratorium to end the war in Vietnam.

It was in medical school that Vyner began wrestling with the nature of peace work and his discomfort with framing political issues within a good-versus-evil paradigm.

He finished his medical training and went on to get a degree in cultural anthropology, so he could do the work he’s been pursuing ever since. Vyner has been interviewing Tibetan lamas in Nepal, India, Tibet, and Bhutan for the past 20 years, hoping to come to an empirical understanding of the nature of the healthy human mind, which his research defines as a mind free of ego and aggression. He publishes books and papers on this work and also gives medical care in the villages and monasteries where he conducts interviews. In many ways Vyner’s medical work and his research have become a form of political expression for him.

Looking at the photo of himself in Memphis at the age of 19 triggers a lot of memories. “A door opened for me during that spring vacation. I was feeling my way into becoming myself–a person who believed in peace and the equality of all human beings,” he says. “And at the same time, I was beginning to feel I was part of history for the first time in my life. I don’t mean that I was part of history because I was a witness to some of the final moments of a great human being’s life. I mean I was a part of history in the sense that I got one of my first tastes of feeling like I was part of something larger than myself.”

Dean Hansell (second from right) poses with other workcamp volunteers and a group of Tennessee locals. After graduating from Denison in 1974, he returned to the workcamps as a law student to teach classes on civil rights law and legal right…
Dean Hansell (second from right) poses with other workcamp volunteers and a group of Tennessee locals. After graduating from Denison in 1974, he returned to the workcamps as a law student to teach classes on civil rights law and legal right…

A Southern Spring Break

Nothing could have prepared two Denison sophomores from Crawford Hall for the experience of sharing a room with nine children and two double mattresses in the modest home of a Tennessee sharecropper. The cotton farmer’s children all clambered into one bed so that Marian Bausch and Kathleen Pichola could share the one beside it. Bausch remembers, “We rolled to the center of the mattress, which, since I was so scared, I didn’t mind at all.” Both girls were awake much of their first night, unnerved by strange sounds coming from under the floor- boards. In the morning they realized that the house was raised on blocks, and the family’s hogs gathered under their bedroom floor at night to snort and sleep.

Since the emancipation of slaves in the South, black laborers unable to purchase their own land often worked as sharecroppers, leasing parcels from white landowners in exchange for a small percentage of the crops they managed to produce. Following civil rights legislation in the early 1960s, sharecroppers wanted to vote. Landowners started evicting them in retaliation, and the area became a battleground for civil rights issues.

A group of Quakers from Cincinnati organized the Fayette-Haywood Workcamps to help black farmers through programs that included voter registration, literacy (“Freedom Schools”), libraries, nutrition, medical care, and rebuilding homes that had been burned down. Virgie Hortenstine started coming to Denison in the late 1960s to recruit student workers during school holidays, with Associate Dean David Gibbons acting as her liaison.

Dean Hansell ‘74 (today an attorney and an Alumni Trustee at Denison) made the first of many trips to Tennessee during a 1971 January term called “Community Organization in the Rural South.” Hansell was already thinking about studying law, but the experiences he had in Tennessee influenced him further, and he returned to help even after he had enrolled in law school. He led classes in legal rights for local workers, where they would pose problems and situations that could be talked through and strategized together.

Ohio license plates on the DCA station wagons driven by Denison students attracted the attention of the local sheriff. Civil rights workers from the North were frequently harassed and jailed, so Denison students learned to drive slowly and carefully to avoid getting pulled over. Hank Vyner remembers an “archetypal large-bellied southern sheriff” stopping his car, accusing him of driving drunk, and wondering aloud if the students had come to cause trouble in Tennessee. He threatened to take Vyner to jail. Fortunately, Hortenstine was with him. The small pacifist Quaker lady squared off with the sheriff and scolded him as if he were a naughty schoolboy until he relented. “It was wonderful,” says Vyner, “and it worked.”

Published April 2011