My thoughts: Whither Larry Payne, civil rights and hallowed grounds?
by Clarence Christian
Posted: Feb. 27, 2016
News accounts say he was repelled by a blast to the stomach from a 12-gauge shotgun, fired in self-defense by an officer of the law. It happened around 12:50 p.m. on March 28, 1968.
At the time of the shooting, I was reviewing my Honors Capstone on "student activism," a purely cerebral exercise totally divorced from the reality of what was going on around me. Memphis was a whirlwind of contradictions, and I was a part of that contradiction.
Larry Payne figured into that contradiction, and I watched and read about the incident with interest and concern. Then I forgot.
But today, I remember.
It is Black History Month, a time to reflect on both the horror and honor of history, especially as it relates to African-Americans. It also is a time to measure progress.
Dutifully, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) has put forth its annual theme to serve as a vortex for arguments, analyses, celebrations and calls for action.
Reviewing past themes both jarred my memory and stirred my emotions. The 2014 theme was "Civil Rights."
For me, this theme calls forth both their promise and their denial. For some strange reason, it also takes me back to Larry Payne. Perhaps it is because "Black Lives Matter" is all over the news.
Larry Payne's death reminded me of how far we have come "tracing our paths in the blood of the slaughtered." We are far removed from slavery and the denial of even our basic humanity and the Dred Scott Decision of 1854 that declared "the Negro has no rights which the white man ought to respect."
We are rid of the Black Codes and massacres of the post-Civil War era, and we are beyond a time when a black soldier of World War I would come home and mysteriously disappear — as did my uncle, Tom Pettis Jones, only to have his bones turn up years later in the Coldwater River Bottom.
It also reminds me that we are perhaps free from the unabridged murders and lynching done "under color of law." But it also recalls for me present-day violations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These things hurt and haunt me.
The Larry Payne case haunts me. Not because of today's continuous complaints of police brutality, or my own personal experiences with police officers — and I have had some scary moments in Memphis, West Tennessee and rural Mississippi. It haunts me because of who I am. Southern, poor, black, male — vulnerable.
Wisdom gained across the ages forces me to be sensitive to these demographics; the sociologist in me tells me that they matter.
The case haunts me on its own merits. Larry Payne lived in now-demolished Fowler Homes housing project. The place was neighbor to Mason Temple, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared he had seen the "promised land.
The United States was "turning" over civil rights at the time of the shooting. Again, our country's creed had met its antithesis in its deeds.
Payne had participated in the March 28 demonstration led by King on behalf of the striking sanitation workers. The march eventually turned violent. King was assassinated in Memphis days later, April 4, on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel.
Payne's mother was watching "As the World Turns" when she got the news. "That's my boy," she cried, running to the scene. The officer said, "I saw a male colored enter the basement of one of the apartments carrying a television," linking Larry Payne to looting that had occurred on South Third Street earlier in the day.
Although 70 yards away, he was sure he had the right guy. His report says Larry Payne made a motion toward him with a blade in his hand.
Community residents tell a different story.
"Larry had his hands up and his back to the door of the storage room. His hands were behind his head when the police shot him," said one. Another said, "The short, fat policeman shot him. It was a muffled sound, like busting a sack. The gun was touching his stomach. The skinny policeman told him, 'You didn't have to shoot him.'"
The officer was exonerated. The "skinny" officer was never interviewed. Larry Payne was 16.
The 2016 ASALH Theme is "Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African-American Memories." Anybody Remember Larry Payne? Is the former site of the Fowler Homes "hallowed ground"?
Clarence Christian is president of the Memphis branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.