Civil rights icon gives talk on activism


Civil Rights Movement icon Edith Lee-Payne visited SVSU’s Founders Hall at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 13.

Lee-Payne was introduced by history professor Kenneth Jolly and Lee-Payne’s granddaughter and fifth-year social work student ShaRonna Payne.

Payne was inspired by her grandmother to become a civil activist herself after being late to school because of the unreliable public transportation in Detroit. Her grandmother encouraged her to go to a city council meeting and voice her concerns.

“Right then and there was the birth of the civil activist in me,” Payne said. “… I went to the city council meeting, and I stood up for all the kids who had to catch the DDOT, the Detroit Department of Public Transportation. I stood up for everyone that was late because my grandma shaped that person in me.”

Lee-Payne’s keynote speech began by addressing her involvement in the March on Washington in 1963.

Lee-Payne was personally unfamiliar with the horrid conditions that southern African Americans faced, such as having to use segregated drinking fountains.

“I didn’t know what those problems were,” Lee-Payne said. “I attended integrated schools and lived in an integrated neighborhood. My church was integrated.”

It was with such a view on life that Lee-Payne went to the March on Washington.

“At 12 years old, when I attended that march, I had no idea that our country could be so divided,” Lee-Payne said. “I did have an idea that things were wrong. I did understand why I was there, but not to the extent that I know now.”

At the march, Lee-Payne’s image was taken, though she did not know it at the time.

“I don’t want you to think I posed for it, because I didn’t,” Lee-Payne said. “As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know the picture existed until 2008, when a cousin was browsing through a catalogue, and she noticed this picture of a Black History calendar.”

The back cover had Lee-Payne’s image on it from when her picture was taken while she participated in the March on Washington. Lee-Payne took the picture as a sign that she was meant to be a civil activist.

“Learning about that picture confirmed for me that my life’s destiny was in civil rights and activism,” Lee-Payne said. “That’s what I was supposed to do.”

Lee-Payne believes that many current civil rights movements lack the courage and leadership that she saw in leaders during the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.

“Any time you see a crowd of people from the March on Washington or any march or any other role during that time, please know that those are the most courageous people you wish you could have known,” Lee-Payne said. “Because death was nothing to them, and not many of us can say that.”

Lee-Payne is one of the few who realistically can.

“I can say that,” Lee-Payne said. “I found that place in my life where, if I have to die for a cause, it’s OK. I’d rather die fighting for something that I know will make life better for my family and for people that I don’t even know because you deserve it. You’re worthy of it.”

Following her speech was an extended discussion with audience members.

Many audience members, such as history senior Jill Hintz, were inspired by Lee-Payne’s address.

“I think it was really interesting how she didn’t really go along with Black Lives Matter,” Hintz said. “She believes that every life matters, but she also points out that both African Americans and whites took part in the Civil Rights Movement.”

History education sophomore Nate Naples was also glad he attended the event.

“I have a couple classes with Dr. Jolly, and hearing him preach on the importance of just coming out was really powerful,” Naples said. “What was striking about the speech was that she was living in a world in the north of naivety, and she had no knowledge of what was happening in the south. You don’t often hear that side of the story. It was powerful to hear that story.”