March 28 marks the day 17-year-old Larry Payne lost his life hiding from a policeman intent on tracking down looters
On April 2, 1968, Mitchell Road School classmates filed out of Clayborn Temple carrying a coffin containing the body of Larry Payne, 17. His death was a harbinger of how a brutal, racist dissonance would burrow itself into the American psyche and spark new movements aimed at protecting black lives, especially young ones. Two days later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be shot and killed while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The deaths shook Memphis’ reputation as the “The City of Good Abode.”
Like young black Americans who sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and the teens who shook a nation during the recent March for Our Lives action in Washington, D.C.; Memphis, New York, Chicago, and other cities, Larry took to the streets during a moment. But on March 28, 1968, he faced a cop with a gun and died surrounded by witnesses, accused of stealing a TV during looting, when earlier, he had been waiting outside historic Clayborn Temple with thousands of Memphians itching to hear what King might say.
The Great Man Theory of history would continue to center King in this story, despite the fact the Civil Rights Movement was comprised of workaday people, like Georgia Gilmore, a black cook who secretly fed and funded the effort. The actual ethos of King himself would amplify the unnamed, the unheard and the unseeen, and this is where the unreliable memories and bends of institutional racism requires us to lift the name and story of Larry Payne. This account is curated with assistance from from archival reports, letters, transcripts newspaper clippings from The Commercial Appeal, The Memphis Press-Scimitar and others.
By all accounts, Larry was well-liked at Mitchell Road High School. He was one of nine children born to Lizzie Mae and Mason Payne, who lived separately. Larry split his time between them but lived mostly with his father in the Westwood community. Lizzie Mae lived at Fowler Homes, a public housing complex near Mason Temple.
Much had been made of the role of youth in the civil rights movement prior to King’s death. Children were not immune from oppression and violence: Think: The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, a few months after serving as a staging area for a children’s crusade. Emmett Till’s murder in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, which arguably gave the movement its momentum when his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, made the brave decision to leave his casket open during his Chicago funeral so the world could see how white racists mutilated her boy, face and all.
“We considered it natural and necessary to involve children — adolescents — in the movement,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-AL) told author Steven Levingston. “We weren’t far from being teenagers ourselves, and we shared many of the same basic feelings of adolescence: unbounded idealism, courage unclouded by ‘practical’ concerns, faith and optimism untrampled by the ‘realities’ of the adult world,” said Lewis, who started working with King at age 18.
By the morning of the 28th, it had been 45 days since City of Memphis sanitation workers, all black men, had gone on strike, and tensions were escalating between those who supported the black workers and city officials, led by white segregationist Mayor Henry Loeb. Joan Beifuss, author of At The River I Stand, quotes a “young black militant” saying “God Almighty, man, black people all over the city had nothing going on but the sanitation strike.”
The strike began after the Feb. 1, 1968 deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, crushed inside a faulty garbage truck where they had sought shelter from the rain while working. Sanitation workers stopped showing up for work until demands for better pay, union recognition and humane working conditions were met. Harsh, dead-end negotiations led to marches calling for justice along trash-lined streets.
This strike represented the work left to be done after the mighty fight to end legal segregation had claimed victory with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King continued to press for “a sharing of power where blacks had equality and whites took responsibility for racism,” as historian Michael Honey described in his book Going Down Jericho Road.
For weeks, strikers engaged in activities rooted in the diligent nonviolent civil disobedience King touted — attention-getting as a riot but without violence. Strikers held daily marches from Clayborn Temple on Hernando Street to Memphis City Hall on Main Street, bookended by union meetings. King was also fighting to maintain national credibility with a younger generation increasingly drawn to militant groups, like the Black Panther Party and the local group, The Invaders. Organizations like Community On the Move for Equality (C.O.M.E), led by King’s longtime ally, the Rev. James Lawson, engaged directly with youth.
Which is probably why on that March morning, ahead of a march where King planned to join striking workers in the streets, according to Honey, C.O.M.E. distributed a flyer across Memphis schools and public housing:
Be cool, fool,
Thursday’s march is King’s thing
If your school is tops, pops, prove it.
Be in the know,
Get on the go,
Thursday at 10.
See you then.
Together we stick,
Divided are stuck, Baby.
Strike supporters had been posted up at high schools across the city, including Lester, Northside, Douglas and Southside, encouraging teachers and students to join the action. At Hamilton High School, kids gathered outside, reportedly hurling rocks and bricks at passing cars, including a garbage truck and its police escort.
Police confronted protesters in riot gear, with tear gas and nightsticks. Students were slow to retreat and, in the chaos, rumors of a 14-year-old named Ann Talbert having been killed (she wasn’t) after a hard blow to the head caused a shift in tension that traveled back to Clayborn Temple. There, thousands of residents were getting ready to receive King and start marching. About half were students.
But King was running behind. Road-weary, he had been in Harlem and was traveling to Memphis, exhausted. While folks waited in the pews of Clayborn, rumors began, including the one about the girl named Ann, the presence of Northern black power activist Stokely Carmichael and other militants. The waiting hour filled with tension and unpredictability.
Meanwhile, Larry and his friends stood in a crowd outside Clayborn. In police interviews conducted after his death, his friends described him in good spirits, playing card games with folks as they waited.
Honey described many wildcards present on what is described at a hot spring day. Already, looting at liquor stores took place that morning. When King arrived at 10:56 a.m. in a white Lincoln borrowed from R.S. Lewis Funeral Home, people had already started stripping protest signs of their posts, carrying just the sticks.
The crowd, responding to the excitement of King’s arrival began shifting out of the strategic formation organizers had made. Folks in the back worked their way up in front of striking workers. People sang “We Shall Overcome,” while chants of “Down with Loeb” also rang out. Newspapers estimated more than 6,000 people came that day.
The headline above a next-day story written by Kay Pittman Black, of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, screamed: “It began like a carnival and ended like a horror show.”
About 20 minutes into the march with King’s aides holding him up as exhaustion kicked in, violence began. Storefront windows were smashed and with the level of police presence, King feared he was now leading people into a potentially deadly confrontation. His aides and other leaders decided to return to the Rivermont Hotel to regroup. Assistant Police Chief Henry Lux would testify later: “It was obvious that the ministers could not handle it.”
Tear gas was deployed on Main and Beale streets. A reporter for The Commercial Appeal wrote about hearing a deputy sheriff having to be calmed down after shouting “shoot the son of a bitch” in response to a man throwing a bottle. By 11:45 a.m., police asked for permission to lob tear gas at Clayborn Temple, where many women and children had sought sanctuary.
Back on South Main Street, a United Press International photographer Jack Thornell would capture an image of Larry and his friends in the middle of a confrontation with a police officer. In preliminary reports, police said they caught the boys breaking the windows on a tailor shop. Larry, dressed in a light collared shirt and dark pants, is on the right side of the frame, midturn. He’s watching the officer, who has Larry’s friend, nicknamed “Spaceman” by the collar, cracking his nightstick across his back. Jerry Lee Sanders, a friend and classmate to the boys, is tumbling on the curb.
“When politicians justified tough on crime policies by denouncing ‘violence in our streets’ and vowing to enforce ‘law and order’ as Barry Goldwater did in 1964, they weren’t talking only, or even primarily about, assaults, robberies and other typical forms of lawbreaking,” wrote Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond in The Atlantic magazine’s King issue. “They meant civil rights demonstrations and riots, in particular. Nationwide, funding for riot control spiked, especially in cities that had experienced riots before and had sizeable black populations.”
Memphis police had spent $150,000 dollars (over $1 million today) on new equipment and overtime since the strike began Feb. 12. Despite the hefty investment, officers were encouraged to bring personal weapons in anticipation of a big event on March 28.
“The Memphis Police Department was ‘policing’ Negroes not rioters,” read an editorial published in the Tri-State Defender, a black newspaper. The piece described groups of black Memphians being the victims of attacks by the police, including one scene at the Big M Lounge, blocks away far from where looting had occurred. People were pepper sprayed without provocation, according to the paper.
At Booker T. Washington High School, the city’s oldest and largest black high school, the same editorial described male faculty members, who had maintained peace all day, sprayed with Mace and tear gassed when police assumed they were looters. About 60 people were arrested that afternoon on charges of looting and rioting.
After the incident on Main Street, Larry and his friends somehow managed to avoid arrest. Larry went to Fowler Homes, where his mother lived. There he regrouped with his pals. Friends interviewed by the police said that is when they decided to go to Sears. It was 12:10 p.m.
In the next morning’s paper, The Commercial Appeal described seeing patrolman Leslie Dean Jones around 12:30 p.m. running down the street, tears streaming down his face, a sawed-off shotgun in his hands, yelling: “We’re trying our damndest. Write that down. We’re trying our damndest. The police didn’t start this. Write that down. Treat us fair.”
Officer Jones was one of many who had brought his personal gun to work that day: Savage Model 2208, sawed off, 18-barrel single shot.
Around 12:45 p.m., Jones and his partner got the call about looting at Sears. They followed other officers to Fowler Homes, where it was reported a group of men carrying televisions and record players were. Jones caught up with Larry, seen carrying a television set, and chased him into an open basement door that Larry shut behind him.
Because Fowler Homes had so many units and the day’s chaos had driven a lot of folks home, there were a lot of witnesses. Onlookers described Larry as having a TV when he ran into the basement.
They also saw what happened next.
Jones approached the door with his shotgun drawn. He had a can of Mace on his belt and a holstered revolver. He ordered Larry to open the door and come out, hands up. The door started to open, then shut as Jones got within a few feet. After a few seconds, Larry began to slide out the door, left side first, with his arms up. Because Jones couldn’t see his right arm, he continued to order Larry to come out with his hands raised while approaching him with his shotgun.
According to his preliminary report, as Jones got closer. Larry’s right arm came into view. He claimed Larry had a butcher knife and was starting to aim it at him. It was then Jones pulled the trigger.
By 12:50 p.m., the call came over the police radio: “We shot one.”
With witnesses at nearly every angle, details of the incident were well-reported but confusing. Nearly every one of the neighbors said Larry had his hands over his head in some way, without a knife. They all saw the nurse who lived at Fowler Homes who had come home to check on her children in the chaos of the day and tried to care for him as he lay bleeding on the ground. They all heard Payne’s mother, Lizzie Mae, cry out.
It was a well-reported detail: Lizzie Mae had been watching the soap opera “As The World Turns” when she heard the shot and the news. She ran out to the courtyard where her 17-year-old son lay with a gunshot to his belly. She was in near collapse when she tried to touch him and was stopped by the barrel of an officer’s gun pressed to her own stomach, while calling her a “nigger,” ordering her to stay back.
A powerful place for reflection is the University of Memphis’ Mississippi Valley Collection, in an archive called “Memphis Search For Meaning.” The collection was so named after a volunteer media study and oral history committee was established by David and Carol Lynn Yellin shortly after King’s assassination in response to what they felt was poor handling of narratives by local media.
About a year after Larry’s death, his family filed a civil suit against Officer Jones and the City of Memphis seeking $500,000 in damages, according to transcripts and copious notes taken by archive volunteers. Mason and Lizzie Mae Payne said their son was “wrongfully, torturously and negligently” shoved with the barrel of a gun and shot at point-blank range. He had been accused of a crime without a warrant. Jones claimed self-defense.
Most of the eyewitnesses at Fowler Homes only saw a knife Jones was carrying around after the shooting but couldn’t identify it in photos when presented in evidence. The Press-Scimitar ran a photograph of inspector William P. Huston holding the knife. During proceedings, police produced a forensic photo of it but said they had disposed of the knife, along with other evidence, like the pants Payne wore that day, deemed no longer necessary, by throwing it in the Mississippi River. They had presumed Jones’s innocence.
The trial ultimately focused its arguments not on whether a knife was present, but whether the shooting was justified. Assistant City Attorney John Thomason’s got the City of Memphis off the hook, but city officials encouraged him to stay on as Jones’ attorney.
His notes include interviews with people who had seen Larry that day. Many said they had seen him carrying a $109.98 television set. The television along with another set and some record players were recovered as evidence from the basement. The notes also include a bit about witnesses who had heard Jones’ partner, patrolman Charles F. Williams cry out “you didn’t have to shoot him” to Jones. Williams denied saying so during the trial.
Thomason’s notes also showed where arguments tried to pit Larry and Jones against each other: Larry Payne by the accounts was a young man of good character, a good student, a good worker with high morals. An incident where he and a friend were questioned on an assault against a classmate was brought up. (It was ultimately a nonissue.) Jones, the son of a policeman and former U.S. Marine, had been on the force for six years with a good record and commendations. And he was also alive for questioning.
The case was settled for $40,000, well within the Memphis Police Dept.’s liability coverage. Sears had been able to file an insurance claim for the $5,700 in damage that incurred on March 28. In the archive’s file is a letter written by Mayor Loeb sent to Thomason:
“I spoke to Mr. Jones this morning after the decision, as I did last week and both times he told me of the outstanding job that you and Kim [Kimbrough] Johnson had done. These days we need examples of excellence, and I think your handling of this case was right down that track.”
In his 1966 essay “A Report from Occupied Territory,” James Baldwin described the “powder keg” of conditions that led to poverty, joblessness and discriminations in the nation’s urban ghettos: “The powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.”
By 1967, Vann Newkirk II argued in “The Whitewashing of King’s Assasination,” that powder keg did blow up. Rioting had taken place in Detroit, and other cities and Memphis proved it was not immune.
“This is a dark hour in the life of America,” King told the Chicago Defender.
After Payne’s death, a citywide curfew was enforced, and the National Guard was mobilized. King would call Mrs. Lizzie Mae Payne to express his condolences and promise he would visit her when he returned to Memphis to finish the march peacefully. He was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel before he could honor his promise.
Despite the Kerner Commission’s findings supporting King’s fundamental work, Newkirk points out the historic and perpetual distortion of it, particularly by those in power. On the day of King’s funeral, California Gov. Ronald Reagan said: “A great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.”
Larry’s story has been subjected to the same dehumanizing trope: He was violent, he was a thief, he played hooky. Had he not broken the law, maybe he wouldn’t be dead despite the fact theft and truancy have never been capital crimes in American democracy.
Reports that the FBI would reopen Payne’s case as a civil-rights cold case have not materialized. The haunting parallel to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Darrius Stewart, Sandra Bland, Stephon Clark and other black lives-turned-hashtags has.
At his final resting place at Memphis’ New Park Cemetery, Larry Payne’s headstone is engraved with who and what he unequivocally was:
It reads: Larry. 1950–1968. Son.