Detroiter in iconic 1963 March on Washington photo reflects on protests, then and now

Edith Lee-Payne of Detroit attended the seminal March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. It was her 12th birthday. | Ken Coleman

Edith Lee-Payne was 12 when she attended the seminal 1963 March on Washington. There, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech that was first offered in Detroit earlier that summer. The effort ultimately helped to persuade congressional leaders to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Aug. 28 Washington, D.C., event also happened to be Lee-Payne’s birthday. The Detroit resident often visited the nation’s capital during the summer to visit family. It is where her mother, Dorothy, was born.

28th August 1963: American minister and civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr (1929 – 1968) waves to the crowd of more than 200,000 people gathered on the Mall during the March on Washington after delivering his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Washington, DC. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But that visit had additional meaning to her: It was the largest civil rights demonstration in American history, attracting 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial. 

Speakers included AFL-CIO Vice President A. Philip Randolph, UAW President Walter Reuther, NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chair John Lewis, and National Urban League President Whitney Young. 

That week, Edward Turner, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP, discussed with the Michigan Chronicle the importance of the demonstration.

“Because an average citizen is dedicated enough to go to Washington to make his feelings on civil rights known to our lawmakers, this means that our movement becomes more of a people’s fight,” Turner said. “And the momentum of the mass participation of average citizens will carry over onto an intensification of local civil rights efforts.”

Rowland Scherman, who worked for the U.S. Information Agency, took a photo of Lee-Payne during the march. Since that time, the picture has taken on iconic status. It has been displayed in the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C., used on political placards, as illustrated on street murals and on billboards. Payne said that she was contacted by a student in France several years ago who saw the photo in one of her textbooks.

Lee-Payne first saw the photo in 2008 in a Black history calendar. Several months later, it was used in a CNN production developed by filmmaker Antoine Fuqua called “From MLK to Today.”

“That was pretty incredible to see my image,” she said.

As Detroit protests near third week, civil rights leaders eye big changes

At age 69, Lee-Payne remains politically active today and often shares important news with her friends and family on Facebook. She appreciates the recent set of Black Lives Matter protests that have been carried daily in cities like Detroit, but she also believes that the 1960s civil rights movement effort may be more impactful than today’s marches and demonstrations. She said that the civil rights movement offered thoughtful strategies and pressed for specific outcomes.

“You can’t just protest and march,” Lee-

Payne said about current demonstrations. “What is the specific goal? You want to defund the police, but you have people within the protests not even fully understanding what ‘defund the police’ means. Not knowing where you go next.”   

The National Action Network, headed by the Rev. Al. Sharpton, will lead a march in the nation’s capital on Friday, the 57th anniversary of the 1963 effort. Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, a son of the late civil rights legend, are expected to participate in the event. Event organizers have pointed out that the effort will comply with health guidance related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.