By Jeffery Robinson
In 1968, the life of a young man named Larry Payne meant nothing to the Mayor, the Chief of Police, or the City Council in Memphis, Tennessee. Fifty-one years later, that needs to change.
April 4 is approaching and that means America will turn its attention, for at least a few minutes, to Memphis. People will visit or write about the National Civil Rights Museum where images of the striking sanitation workers evoke memories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech the night before he was assassinated. Such a focus is a necessary, but events that occurred one week earlier have left an open wound in the Memphis community.
On March 28, 1968, Dr. King led a demonstration in Memphis that broke into violence. The violence that day included when Memphis Police Officer Leslie Dean Jones was seen by multiple witnesses walk up to 17-year-old Larry Payne, who had his hands raised, put a shotgun in his stomach, and pull the trigger. Then, police took Larry’s clothes and evidence of the shooting and simply threw them into the Mississippi River. Since that time, there has been no justice for Larry Payne or his surviving family.
In 1968, Larry Payne was a student at Mitchell High School and usually after school he worked at the hospital where his father worked. When trouble broke out during the Sanitation Worker’s Strike demonstration on March 28, Larry joined a group of people who were carrying T.V. sets and record players from a Sears store. Witnesses said Larry carried a T.V. into a basement and was chased by Officer Jones. Whether Larry was involved with stealing the T.V. set or helping carry stolen property is unclear, but there is nothing unclear about what happened next.
Officer Jones had his personal shotgun with him that day – a single shot Savage Model 2208 shotgun with a sawed off barrel. He ordered Larry to come out of a building and, after some hesitation, Larry emerged with his arms up. Officer Jones continued to order Larry to come out and moved toward Larry. Witnesses said Larry came out and said “don’t shoot.” Witnesses saw Officer Jones approach Larry without saying a word. He put his sawed off shotgun into Larry’s stomach and pulled the trigger. Claims that Larry had a knife in his hand were contradicted by numerous onlookers who had a clear view – and there were a lot of people around at the time because they were headed home when the protest started to turn violent.
In some ways, 1968 was much the same as today. There was virtually no investigation into Larry’s murder. The officer was cleared of any wrong doing without a trial. Throwing the evidence in the river was the ultimate slap in the face. Larry was dead and gone, so he did not matter.
However, don’t tell his family that Larry does not matter. His sisters – Carolyn Payne, Kira Tidwell, and Macie Wade – and his brothers – Calvin, Malcolm, and John Payne – remember Larry’s life and death. They remember Larry’s mother Lizzie trying to get to Larry’s body after he was killed and a police officer putting a gun into her stomach, calling her nigger, and telling her to get back. They have heard people suggest that Larry deserved to be shot at point blank range with his hands in the air because he may have been holding a T.V. worth about $109.98. That message is frighteningly similar to so many messages from today relating to police violence. Officers are assumed to be justified in killing citizens and are rarely prosecuted, much less convicted of wrongdoing.
Is Memphis of 2019 different than the city that existed 51 years ago? The Mayor, Police Chief, and City Council members have changed. The city has changed. Isn’t it time for Memphis to make peace with Larry Payne and his family? The Mayor, Police Chief, and City Council members should reach out to Larry Payne’s family. They should meet to discuss how the city can help the family heal. They should decide how to horror Larry’s memory in a public way. Larry Payne’s life meant something and still does. Memphis should say so – loudly and clearly.
ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE:
Contact Mayor Jim Strickland
Memphis City Hall
125 N. Main St. Room 700
Memphis, TN 38103
Contact Memphis City Council Members
Sherman Greer (District 1)
Frank Colvett, Jr. (District 2)
Patrice Robinson (District 3)
Jamita Swearengen (District 4)
Worth Morgan (District 5)
Gerre Currie (District 6)
Berlin Boyd (District 7)
Joe Brown (District 8-1)
Cheyenne Johnson (District 8-2)
Martavius Jones (District 8-3)
Kemp Conrad (District 9 -1)
J. Ford Canale (District 9-2)
Reid Hedgepeth (District 9-3)