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Edith Lee-Payne: Accidental civil rights icon

This post comes to us from summer intern Hannah Fenster.

Summer intern Hannah Fenster interviews Edith Lee-Payne. Lee-Payne visited the Archives ahead of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The iconic photograph of her as a 12-year-old girl, taken by photographer Rowland Scherman, is currently on display.

Summer intern Hannah Fenster interviews Edith Lee-Payne, who visited the Archives with her granddaughters ahead of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

When Edith Lee-Payne stepped into the lobby of the National Archives last week, she came from a morning full of press interviews and national monument visits.

But the whirlwind of her recent rise to fame slowed when she entered the Rotunda to view a photograph of her 12-year-old self. Her hand rested on her heart as she bent over the glass case containing the original image.

On August 28, 1963, Lee-Payne attended the March on Washington, where photographer Rowland Scherman snapped her picture without her knowledge. While Lee-Payne went on to face constant struggles against still-prevalent racial discrimination, her image lived a life of its own, growing into an iconic symbol of the historic day.

Discovering herself in the photograph this year has allowed Lee-Payne the opportunity to harmonize her actual life with her archived existence as a symbol of a national movement.

She feels like the photo—and her recent fame—has afforded her new responsibility. “It gives me an opportunity to share with others what Dr. King shared with this country,” she said.

Just as she became a picture for the March on Washington, Lee-Payne says, “The March in 1963 was a picture of America. People from all walks of life came together for King’s message.” Her favorite quote comes from Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Edith Lee-Payne participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as a 12-year-old in 1963. Photographer Rowland Scherman snapped this now-iconic image.

Edith Lee-Payne participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as a 12-year-old in 1963. Photographer Rowland Scherman snapped this now-iconic image. (NAI 542030)

The formal display featuring her own face moved Lee-Payne to tears. “It’s extremely overwhelming,” she said. “To see my face associated with such an important time in this country’s history . . .  it’s extraordinary.”

Her story teaches us about the significance of our own actions, particularly when we aren’t aware of their impact. “I’ve been in history all these years,” she marveled, with a glance toward the display case.

Where will you leave your image in history?

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