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Criminal Justice and Policing

Half A Century Later, Larry Payne’s Family Still Fights For Justice

Police killing of Black teen is ‘a pain that will never go away’

Carolyn Payne, Larry Payne’s younger sister and longtime family spokesperson, reacts while touring the National Civil Rights Museum. Larry Payne was shot and killed as a teenager by police amid the unrest that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final march down Beale Street 54 years ago. (Brad Vest/The Daily Memphian)

On Monday, just as she does every March 28, Carolyn Payne woke up early and started crying over her brother, Larry Payne, who was killed by a Memphis police officer 54 years ago. He was 17. 

She imagined telling him, “I love him, and how much I truly miss him.” 

For years, Carolyn Payne has shared about his life and death in hopes that he wouldn’t be forgotten amid commemorations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated exactly a week later on April 4, 1968. But Larry Payne’s story is still relatively unknown, even in his hometown. 

So, when she walked into the National Civil Rights Museum on Monday morning to reflect with some family members on the anniversary, she hoped it would be the one place he was memorialized the way she remembered him. But the extensive exhibit on Larry Payne that museum staff had curated was gone. Part of a temporary display to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s death in 2018, it’s now in storage.

What remained was two sentences about him on a wall and a photo of Payne running from police who were beating other protesters Downtown a few hours before he was shot. 

“That’s a slap in the face to me,” she told museum staff as she wiped away tears with her jacket collar. “This is something that’s forever. It’s not just no 50 years or whatever. … I can’t accept it.” 

Carolyn Payne shows the exhibit she was hoping to see while touring the National Civil Rights Museum. (Brad Vest/The Daily Memphian)

What started as a solemn tribute to the teenager shot and killed by police meant to comfort his remaining siblings turned into a hard look at how families of victims can feel overlooked in the stories told about their loved ones. 

By the end of the morning, museum leaders committed to collecting more information about Larry Payne, including photos from the family and exploring the possibility of recording oral history through video interviews. They also committed to acknowledging the anniversary of Larry Payne’s death on the museum’s digital monitors for the visitors in addition to their already planned  opens in a new windowsocial media recognition

“One of the takeaways from today is hopefully the establishment of a relationship that extends beyond March the 28th,” said Russ Wigginton, the museum’s president, after meeting with the family. “And I do think getting back together, talking through some ways to lift up Mr. Payne’s legacy, scheduling times and conducting oral history interviews with the family members — that’s how you build real trust and relationships.” 

The day Larry Payne was killed was a tough one for the Civil Rights Movement. King had come to Memphis to support the 1,300 sanitation workers on strike for better pay and equal rights. But the march in downtown Memphis, which turned out to be the last of King’s life, dissolved into police attacking protestors and some people breaking storefront windows. 

Carolyn Payne speaks to museum employees while touring the National Civil Rights Museum about the absence of the exhibit about her brother. (Brad Vest/The Daily Memphian

Though many people were injured by police that day, Payne’s was the only death. 

The officer who shot him, Leslie Dean Jones, had chased the teenager to a basement door in the courtyard of his mother’s apartment complex after reports of looting from a nearby Sears. Family members said he was out running an errand for his mother when police showed up with guns drawn. When Payne eventually emerged from the room, Jones said the youth had a knife in one hand while the other was on his head. Neighbors watching from around the complex said the teen had both hands on his head. Jones then shot Payne in the stomach at close range with a shotgun, killing him. 

“He was Memphis’ own ‘hands up, don’t shoot,’ ” said Ryan Jones, the museum’s educator and lead tour guide. 

King called Larry Payne’s mother, Lizzie May Payne, and vowed that he would express his condolences in person after the next march. But before he could fulfill that promise, he was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where the National Civil Rights Museum now sits. 

While Black Memphians showed up en masse to mourn Larry Payne’s death, his story is largely forgotten in the city’s collective memory. 

The public housing complex where he died was  opens in a new windowdemolished in 2004. There’s no historical marker. The cemetery where he’s buried in Whitehaven does not mention him among the  opens in a new windowsignificant Memphians interred there. And in a particularly hard blow to his sister, Carolyn Payne, the family was not invited to attend recent  opens in a new windowlocal events with the families of high-profile victims of police shootings including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake. 

”They didn’t even bring Larry’s name up. When I saw that, I cried,” she said. “It’s a pain that will never go away.” 

So, the truncated display about her brother that she saw Monday at the museum just added another layer of hurt on top of the trauma she still experiences. Rev. Kevin Andre Brooks, who came to support the family at the museum Monday, said on a larger scale, America still experiences the consequences of not telling the full truth about police brutality and racial injustice. 

”If Larry Payne’s case would have been dealt with, maybe we wouldn’t have had the climate where Trayvon Martin or George Floyd, and again, there’s so many nameless people who have been victims of police brutality and injustice that we do not know about,” he said. 

Carolyn Payne points to a picture of her brother while touring the National Civil Rights Museum. (Brad Vest/The Daily Memphian)

Carolyn Payne would like to carry on the fight her parents started with an unsuccessful civil suit that a jury rejected in 1969 despite what seemed to many to be overwhelming evidence of a wrongful death. But there are many obstacles. The officer, Jones, died in 2019. Court documents show the knife Larry Payne was allegedly holding was disposed of. She’s not even sure who she needs to talk to in order to seek justice for her brother on an institutional level. 

Her sister Macie Payne Wade wants a documentary done — not just about Larry Payne’s death, but about who he was during his life. Her niece Ava Smith said she wants to raise awareness about the mental anguish children go through when their relatives are shot and killed, especially by police. For years, she said she hated all police and would have a “bad attitude” if she was pulled over. Even last year she was still seeking counseling about her uncle’s death. She was 10 years old when he died, but she has many fond memories of the love he showed her. 

“They’re children. They’re going to miss their loved ones,” Smith said. “And they’re going to carry this with them for the rest of their lives. I don’t want no child to go through what I went through.” 

Until then, the Payne family plans to keep pushing his story into the spotlight wherever they go. 

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

Laura Faith Kebede is coordinator of The Institute’s Civil Wrongs project exploring racial injustice in Memphis and the Mid-South. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and covered education in Memphis for several years for Chalkbeat Tennessee.

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