Edith Lee-Payne traveled from Detroit, Mich. to be in the nation’s capital for the 50th anniversary of the Aug. 28,1963 March on Washington where history was made and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
For Lee-Payne, it was a pilgrimage. She had been in the District as a 12 year-old girl on that hot, steamy August day in 1963. She had made the long ride from Detroit with her mother on a Greyhound Bus. And, said Lee-Payne, whose birthdate is Aug. 28, the event was incredibly exciting.
“That was the usual fun ride with the basket of chicken and boiled eggs and cartons of milk and snacks and cookies,” she said. “You just settled in your seat and prepared for that 15-, 16-hour ride.”
Unbeknownst to her, a photographer named Rowland Scherman snapped her picture at the march, making her one of the enduring images of the historic event. The photo shows a young brown-skinned girl, expressionless, and holding a March on Washington banner.
Lee-Payne said she wasn’t aware of the photograph until 2009 when a cousin told her she saw the picture in a civil rights calendar.
“Of course I didn’t believe her because on the cover was Dr. King, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Jesse Owens-people like that,” she said. ” So I couldn’t fathom why my picture would be on a calendar with these historic people.”
Lee-Payne was among the thousands of people who gathered on the mall for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Aug. 28. They had pressed their way towards the Lincoln Memorial, hoping to get as close as possible to the place where a King spoke two score and ten ago.
The sky was cloudy, the air thick with humidity and rain fell off and on, but no one seemed to care.
And then there were the speakers-a phalanx of important people, from President Obama and former presidents Clinton and Carter to members of Congress; from Oprah to Jamie Foxx and other entertainers to local government officials, such as D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray. There were civil rights leaders and, family members of King, including his three living children, Bernice, Dexter and Martin III.
Former Atlanta mayor and King associate Andrew Young began with a song:
“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom,” he sang.
Fifty years after the 1963 march, Young said, the nation is still grappling with many of the problems that plagued Blacks back then.
“And so,” he noted, on the anniversary, “we are not here to claim any victory. We are here to simply say that the struggle continues.”
Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, agreed.
“We come here to Washington to say, we ain’t goin’ back, we ain’t goin’ back,” he said. “We’ve come too far, marched too long, prayed too hard, whipped too bitterly, bled too profusely and died too young to let anybody turn back the clock on our journey to justice.”
The 1963 March on Washington is perhaps best known for King’s speech. One of the writers of King’s words was his lawyer, friend and speech writer, Clarence B. Jones, now 82. He said he looked at the speech as a work of art.
“Words,” he said, “are like individual colors of paint, of pastels. Each word has a power of its own, just like the color that an artist uses on his canvas. You have to choose the colors carefully because you have to get to the colors that paint the picture the artist wants you to see.
For many people, just being at the Lincoln Memorial or the National Mall on the anniversary was exciting enough, even if they didn’t listen to all the speeches. Some participants walked around, taking in the moment, breathing in the fresh air of what they hope is a new day. Such was Berry Gordy of Motown fame.
“Nothing could have kept me away,” said Motown founder Berry Gordy. “It’s such a historical event that we’re here.”
Gordy signed King to his Motown label in 1963 and eventually released some of his speeches as recordings.
“I had a very close relationship with Dr. King,” he said. “We were such great friends.”
Actor Jamie Foxx told the audience that actor and singer Harry Belafonte, another close associate of King’s, challenged him to action. He implored his fellow entertainers to get involved in the freedom movement.
“I’m tell you right now, that everybody my age and all the entertainers, it’s time for us to stand up now and renew this dream,” he said.
King’s sister, Christine King Farris, 85, told the audience that she was at home suffering with the flu during the 1963 march. She watched it unfold on television.
“There is no better way to honor his sacrifice and contributions than by becoming champions of non-violence,” she said.
Former president Clinton reminded those gathered that the swell of enthusiasm that followed the original March on Washington was dampered by the deadly bombing, 18 days later, of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four little Black girls were killed.
The bell that hung in that church was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28 and at 3 p.m., members of the King family helped to ring that bell led a bell ringing tribute by clanging the historic bell.
More than four hours after the first speaker took to the podium, the last one made his way. It was the president of the United States. The significance of his presence was not lost on those gathered.
“We may not face the same dangers of 1963, “ Obama said, “but the fierce urgency now remains. We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling procession of that day so long ago. No one can match King’s brilliance, but the same flame that lit the heart of all who were willing to take a first step for justice, I know that flame remains.”