Memphis, Tenn., exploded into chaos on March 28, 1968, as militarized police officers—armed with rifles, tear gas, billy clubs and the full authority of the state—terrorized black protesters who were out in full force to support Memphis sanitation strikers.
It was amid this violent siege that Memphis Police Officer Leslie Dean Jones stuck a shotgun into the stomach of 16-year-old Larry Payne and executed him in front of a basement door at Fowler Homes, the housing project across the street from Mason Temple, where his mother, Lizzie Mae Payne, lived.
In a report the following morning, the Commercial Appeal described Jones running down Beale Street around 12:30 p.m.—approximately 20 minutes before he killed Larry Payne—“clutching a sawed-off shotgun, tears running down his face, from tear gas.”
“We’re trying our damnedest. Write that down,” Jones told the newspaper. “The police didn’t start this. Write that down. Treat us fair.”
In 20 minutes, Larry Payne would be dead.
The teen was a popular student at Mitchell Road High School whose smile could light up a room. He had been in a good mood all morning, joking around with friends as they awaited the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. at Clayborn Temple. King was scheduled to lead the march in support of the sanitation strikers, but he was exhausted from his travels and running late. As the crowd swelled to thousands of people, so did the tension.
When King arrived, the march began, but it didn’t take long for that tension to boil over. Black youths in Memphis were tired of being polite, tired of the same old promises from the same old politicians and tired of waiting. Maybe if the powers that be couldn’t hear their voices, they would hear the windows smashing and the glass breaking out of store windows. Maybe someone, anyone, would pay attention and realize that King was right: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
But this was no riot; no, it was an uprising—and Larry Payne was there. His life was apparently worth less than $100; that’s how much the television he was accused of stealing from Sears cost.
At least 20 witnesses described the encounter between Jones and the teen he gunned down.
“Come out, nigger, or I’m going to shoot,” Jones screamed at Larry Payne, who was inside a basement at Fowler Homes, reported the April 6, 1968, Tri-State Defender. According to witnesses, Payne exited the door with his hands up, begging Jones not to shoot him.
Jones didn’t care and he didn’t listen. The fatal shot reverberated through the housing complex, sending Lizzie Mae Payne—who was inside her apartment watching the soap opera As the World Turns—running outside, where neighbors told her that her son had been shot.
She ran to her baby, only to be stopped by Jones.
“You killed my son! You killed my son!” Lizzie Mae Payne was quoted in the Tri-State Defender as screaming.
“If you don’t get back, nigger, I’ll kill you,” Jones told her as she tried to get close to her son’s body.
Apparently, this was the officer’s version of “trying [his] damnedest.”
In this episode of 1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ’68, you will see that the roots of the rallying cry, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” reach way back into a long, bloody history of police brutality. The entrenched pattern of state-sanctioned, militarized police violence is the reason justice in the present is so urgent. It is why we cannot wait for some hazy time in the future for this nation to get it right.
Larry Payne was a child, a child who woke up on March 28, 1968, to march for justice; instead, he was gunned down by injustice in the form of a deputized white supremacist with a sawed-off shotgun.
On April 2, 1968, two days before King would be assassinated, girls cried at the sight of 16-year-old Larry Payne in his casket at Clayborn Temple. Fifty years later, families and communities are still being ripped apart by the same armed forces that protect and serve some, while incarcerating and killing others.
Larry Payne’s death may have preceded hashtags, but his life still matters.
In his last hour on earth, the playful teenager asked his 11-year-old brother, Malcolm, to go to the store to get him a Double Cola. In this episode, you will see young Malcolm, in a light-blue shirt, standing near Larry’s body as police push the crowd back, holding on to a cola bottle his big brother would never receive.
No brother, no mother, no father, no community should have to experience such wrenching grief—and that is one of the reasons we continue to fight today—to intercept the death of the next Emmett Till, the next Tamir Rice, the next Jimmie Lee Jackson, the next Trayvon Martin.
The next #LarryPayne.