Edith Lee-Payne, whose face as a 12-year old became an iconic image of the 1963 March on Washington, will be marching again Saturday, Aug. 24, in the 50th anniversary observance. Fifty years ago, she accompanied her mother on a journey by bus from Detroit to Washington, D.C. This time, she will be accompanied by her own granddaughters.
“My thoughts then were how unfair it was that people were unable to do the things my family could do such as sit anywhere on public transportation, eat at lunch counters, attend school, and exist in a society without facing severe consequences,” Lee-Payne recalled. “It was unbelievable to me that a few hundred miles made a difference in the way we lived and were treated.”
Lee-Payne attends Hope United Methodist Church in Southfield, Mich., where she chairs the congregation’s Church & Society committee and is active in United Methodist Women.
According to her, Lee-Payne is returning to march in honor of the 250,000 other people who were there on Aug. 28, 1963. She wants to honor those who experienced the injustices that brought so many to Washington, D.C., and especially for the many who made the ultimate sacrifice like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did to make life better for others.
Not enough has changed
“I also want to honor those who stood in support for a better America, like my mother,” Lee-Payne said. Her mother, Dorothy Lee, died in 1993.
“Sadly, not enough has changed and in some regards things are much worse,” Lee-Payne said. “Despite passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, civil, human and voting rights are being subverted today. Discrimination is still present.”
Sadly, not enough has changed and in some regards things are much worse.
The March on Washington in 1963 took place on Lee-Payne’s 12th birthday. “It was a birthday I could never forget,” she said. “The march contradicted the Constitution that I studied in school and the Pledge of Allegiance I recited daily.”
Lee-Payne said her neighborhood was integrated. She attended the same schools as whites, and “sometimes shared worship experiences.” “We dined at restaurants with lunch counters without incident and drank from water fountains without signs distinguishing ‘color,’” she said. “My mother never learned to drive, so buses and cabs were our primary mode of transportation, also without incident.”
According to Lee-Payne, she was living the dream Dr. King spoke about. She added a significant “but,” however: “But others did not.”
“What I had learned in school about the Constitution, Emancipation Proclamation, freedom and opportunities caused me to question the validity of these documents and concepts,” Lee-Payne said. “There were no exceptions in these documents or caveats allowing these dreadful differences to happen, yet they did.”
Despite her 12 years, Lee-Payne said she understood the purpose of that historic day, and has always carried a sense of pride for being there.
Coincidentally, Washington, D.C., was home for Lee-Payne’s mother before settling in Detroit. After Dr. King led a march in Detroit on June 23, 1963, Dorothy Lee scheduled their vacation to attend the March on Washington in August. Lee-Payne said Dr. King gave a preview in Detroit of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered at the Lincoln Memorial.
At the March on Washington, a photographer snapped a photo of Lee-Payne holding a banner. Ironically, although the photo has been reproduced innumerable times, it wasn’t until October 2008 that she learned of its existence when her cousin in Baltimore saw the picture in a 2009 Black History calendar.
A librarian at the Library of Congress and an archivist at the National Archives & Records Administration helped her locate the photograph. She learned from the archivist that her image had been reproduced countless times in textbooks, calendars, brochures and other publications. For instance, it was featured on the Park Service brochure for the King Memorial.
The archivist also showed her two other photos especially memorable to Lee-Payne because they both include Dorothy Lee at the march.
Aug. 27, PBS will air a documentary, “The March,” that recounts the story behind the 1963 March on Washington. The film is directed by John Akomfrah of U.K.-based Smoking Dogs Films and co-produced by Robert Redford’s Sundance Productions.
Akomfrah and his team tracked down many notable participants in the march, including Edith Lee-Payne and Rowland Scherman, the photographer who snapped her picture.
The National Archives has prepared a short video, “The March on Washington in Photographs,” that features Lee-Payne and Scherman, who had not met before. The 3.05-minute video is part of an ongoing National Archives effort to bring history alive.
While not knowing that for decades she has been playing an iconic role in history, as an adult Lee-Payne has become very recognizable to Detroit city government officials. She often speaks on behalf of citizens, advocating for stronger safety measures, better public transportation and other improvements in the city.
Lee-Payne is one of 28 plaintiffs in a suit challenging Michigan's Emergency Manager law as unconstitutional on the grounds that it nullifies citizens’ votes. She calls Michigan “the only state in America without democracy.” She explains that the disputed legislation allows Michigan’s governor to appoint managers to municipalities and school districts of color with authority to unilaterally override duly-elected representatives.
As executive director of the Lee-Lovett Foundation (LLF), Lee-Payne promotes organ and tissue donation, particularly in the African-American community where donors are most needed. LLF was co-founded with James Lovett Jr., a heart recipient, and in memory of her eldest son, Antoine Lee.
Although she spent most of her working career as an independent real-estate saleswoman, Lee-Payne describes herself today as a marketing and political relations consultant, political strategist, and community and civil rights activist. She suspects that desire to speak up about perceived wrongs was laid as a child when her mother took her to civil-rights marches.
Bringing granddaughters to march
Lee-Payne said she is bringing her granddaughters to see Americans come together from all walks of life without regard to race, color, creed or religion, just as she witnessed 50 years ago. “I want them to experience being a part of something great and that merely their presence can make a difference,” she said, “for equality, jobs, justice, peace and freedom.”
I want them to learn it is all right to stand for what is right and to speak truth to power when necessary.
Lee-Payne said she wants her granddaughters to learn to have hope that America will be better for everyone. She is certain they will see hope on the faces of others despite the adversities surrounding them, just as she herself saw 50 years ago.
“I want them to learn it is all right to stand for what is right and to speak truth to power when necessary,” Lee-Payne said. “I want them to know they are standing to say that racial profiling is wrong, that wearing garments with hoods should not determine a fate of life or death, and that voting is a right.”
Most importantly, Lee-Payne said they should learn through this experience to have hope, faith and trust in God, in everything, always and in all ways because God is ultimately in control.
Her granddaughters are not the only persons Lee-Payne expects to benefit from marching. “I myself will gain an even greater sense of commitment and inspiration to fulfill the purpose God has for my life to encourage, educate, inspire and advocate to and for others,” she said, emphasizing that just as 50 years ago on Aug. 28, 1963, the purpose of this march will not end at the end of the day.