Civil rights activist visits Plainfield’s JFK Middle School students

John F. Kennedy Middle School eighth-grader Sofia Mercado asks Edith Lee-Payne, a Civil Rights activist a question during Lee-Payne's visit to the school on April 25, 2024.

Plainfield — Each year, John F. Kennedy Middle School language arts teacher Jen Gruca assigns her eighth-grade language arts students to pick a research topic and write a letter to someone in that field to help them better understand the subject. This year, one of those letters earned the school a special visitor.

Sofia Mercado chose to write to civil rights advocate Edith Lee-Payne, who – in addition to her own work advocating for social justice issues such as housing, education, public safety and civil rights – was immortalized at just 12 years old when she was photographed attending Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington.

In the photo, Lee-Payne is seen holding a banner, given to her by her mother, that reads “March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom I was there.”

Lee-Payne did not realize that the photo had become famous until she saw it in 2018 on a calendar celebrating Black history. She has since donated the banner to the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Edith Lee-Payne at the March on Washington in 1963 at age 12.

Mercado selected the civil rights movement as her research subject because she said she thought people should know more about it and that “it impacted our society a lot and really changed history.”

“Sofia was inspired by Edith’s story and perseverance, her leadership, and her vision to help others,” Gruca said.

After reading Mercado’s letter, Lee-Payne was impressed and decided to drive in from Detroit to meet Mercado and the class.

“I was so impressed with the letter because of her interest in the civil rights movement,” Lee-Payne said. “It caused me to want to come and meet her personally.”

Civil Rights activist Edith Lee-Payne from Detroit interacts with John F. Kennedy Middle School eighth graders during her visit on April 25, 2024. Lee-Payne visited the school at the request of eighth grader Sofia Mercado.

Lee-Payne arrived at JFK Middle School on April 25 to speak to the entire eighth-grade class about her experience and the civil rights movement – a visit that was a complete surprise for Mercado.

During the assembly, Lee-Payne talked to students about her experience with her mother taking her to see King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington and her own activism work. She encouraged students to get involved in making changes in their local, state and world communities.

“If somebody wants to make a difference, don’t get in their way, don’t discourage them – encourage them,” Lee-Payne told the students. “We need more of that because you are our future.”