The Memphis Commercial Appeal
Every year since 1968, Payne and seven of her children have dreaded the anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As the rest of the world prepared to celebrate the life and legacy of King each year, her family was reminded of her child's death at the hands of a Memphis police officer.
Larry Payne, 16, died March 28, 1968, the only fatality in a day of riots and looting in the aftermath of a sanitation workers' march led by King. More than 60 people were injured. King would later telephone Lizzie Payne to console her. He planned to visit her in her public housing apartment at Fowler Homes. Before he could visit, he too was dead, his murder overshadowing Larry Payne's death and turning the 16-year-old into a historical footnote except to his family.
"That has got the best of my life. It's taken everything out of me," says Lizzie Payne, crying once again as the memories return on the 40th anniversary of her son's death.
"I was in my living room watching 'As the World Turns.' A lady ran in and told me Larry had been shot by the police. I ran out. I ran to touch him. The police would not let me touch him. He said, 'Get back, nigger.' He put the barrel of the gun right into my stomach. I could feel it."
Her tears stop as the racial slur and the threat of her own death remind her of the police officer who took her son's life. "I hate the policeman that killed him. They didn't even arrest him for killing Larry."
Patrolman L.D. Jones said he and his partner, Charles F. Williams, had followed a group of youths carrying portable television sets from the Sears store at 903 S. Third to a basement in Fowler Homes.
Jones would later testify he ordered anyone in the basement to come out. Jones said Payne emerged with his left hand in the air and the right hand moving upward, grasping a knife. Jones fired a shotgun blast into Payne's stomach.
Lizzie Payne said her last image of her son was of him lying on his back with both hands outstretched above his head. "He didn't have anything in his hands." She said there was no knife on the ground. A grand jury declined to indict Jones. He faced no charges.
Payne family attorney Irvin Salky later filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Police Department, which they lost. Salky said police never produced a knife as evidence in the case, claiming the weapon was mistakenly collected with older evidence from the police property room.
"What they claimed was that it was dumped into the Mississippi River along with other weapons. We had a lot of skepticism over that," Salky said.
It wouldn't be the only note of skepticism. The FBI in Washington announced in February 2007 that it was reviewing an estimated 100 cases of black citizens killed during the 1950s and 1960s. The Payne case was among those being considered, but FBI special agent George Bolds said this week he is unaware of an active investigation into the case.
Salky and Payne's family say the FBI should review the case based on one simple premise. As Payne's brother, Malcolm Payne, 51, puts it: "Who's going to pull a knife on a guy with a shotgun?"
Malcolm, who moved with his mother to Flint, mourned his brother, but with a sense of rage: "When I was still a little boy, I wanted to catch a bus to St. Louis, then hitchhike to Memphis and kill that police officer."
His anger was fueled by his mother's grief. "My mother cried every night. She said, 'Lord, why didn't you take me? Why him?'
"It was all night, every night. She wouldn't comb her hair, wouldn't eat. Her heart and spirit were ripped in half," says Malcolm.
Lizzie Payne says that when the family decided to sue the Police Department, she feared she would be murdered. "I thought they were going to kill me to shut my mouth up."
Her daughter, Carolyn Payne of Memphis, was 13 when her older brother died. To her, it would have been out of character for Larry to be involved in looting. He was a good brother, a good student, she says. He worked after school as a maintenance worker at Bowld Hospital.
"Even if he was looting, looting doesn't justify murder. You don't shoot nobody for stealing, so the case really speaks for itself," says Carolyn.
Brother Carl Payne, a year older than Larry, says his brother's death led to depression that even 40 years later requires psychiatric help and medication. Carl says his family kept a shotgun in the home. His own anger almost cost another life that day: "I found the shotgun, but I couldn't find the bullets. I was going to kill the ... that shot Larry. They killed him for nothing."
In the end, sister Kira Tidwell, 58, says the anger and rage are not for the family to resolve. "In the end, everybody is going to pay for their wrong-doings. I'm looking for the high and mighty upstairs to take care of it all."
--Michael Lollar: 901-529-2793