A Picture of Dr. King's Dream

In this guest blog, Daniel Kessel reveals how a 50-year-old photograph reaffirmed one woman’s faith.

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Edith Lee-Payne at the 1963 March on Washington by Rowland Scherman.

Today’s guest blogger is Mysterious Ways assistant editor Daniel Kessel.

At the 1963 March on Washington, 12-year-old Edith Lee-Payne stood among the crowd, taking in the larger-than-life events around her.

She’d traveled with her mother from Detroit to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. Holding up a “March for Jobs and Freedom” banner, she listened to Dr. King’s words with awe. He spoke with such integrity; he stood up for what was right.

For Edith, a young girl with “a reverential respect for God,” King appealed on a spiritual level. The experience remained with Edith as an adult, through some of her most difficult struggles. In 1990, when she lost her 20-year-old son in an accident, Edith followed King's example and transformed her pain into an effort to help her fellow African-Americans: She started a small nonprofit in her son’s name, the Detroit-based Lee-Lovett Foundation, which promotes organ and tissue donations, especially among minorities, where the need is greatest.

Then in 2008, nearly 50 years after the March, Edith received an unexpected phone call. “I hope you’re sitting down, Edith,” said her cousin Marsha. Marsha had been out shopping when a calendar with famous images from African-American history jumped out at her. Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr. and... 12-year-old Edith Lee-Payne?

Edith laughed. She assumed her cousin was joking.

Still, curiosity got the better of her. After the cousins hung up, Edith did a Google search. The photograph wasn’t hard to find–in fact, it was famous! The photo had been published and reproduced in textbooks for decades. It was even part of an exhibit at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C., on display in a glass case.

At first, Edith was in shock. She was reluctant to believe she was the subject of such a historical photograph. But when she looked at the photo of the 12-year-old girl, holding up a “March for Jobs and Freedom” banner, she saw her own eyes staring back at her. There was no mistaking it. “I still have that banner,” Edith said in an interview.

The photo was taken by Rowland Scherman, then a young photographer for the United States Information Agency. According to ABC News, Rowland had been standing near the stage as Dr. King began to speak. The March was one of his first assignments, and he was searching for the perfect face to capture the day’s high energy. In the crowd of 250,000, one young girl stuck out.

“I turned around and saw a beautiful young woman listening to Dr. King,” he said. “She was so interested and enrapt by the events. I didn’t realize how terrific the picture would be.”

For many, Edith’s is the face of the March on Washington: a powerful representation of youth gazing toward a future full of hope. For Edith, the picture is that and so much more. It’s an affirmation of her faith.

“I know we are here for a purpose,” Edith said. “Looking back, the picture was God’s confirmation that I’m doing what I need to do.”

Photo credits, from top: National Archives; Edith Lee-Payne and her granddaughters drop by the NARA to view the famous photograph (source: Edith Lee-Payne).

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