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54 Years ago, MLK's Death Overshadowed a Police Shooting That Still Haunts Family

Courtesy of Brad Vest and The Daily Memphian
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.

The Sanitation Workers' Strike may be known for the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. But a week earlier, after a protest turned unruly, a 17-year-old was gunned down by a Memphis police officer. Larry Payne's family doesn't want to see him become a footnote.

Here at the National Civil Rights Museum, Carolyn Payne is processing not just the loss of her brother, but how the memory of him has diminished.

Back in 2018, during the 50th Anniversary commemoration, he was the focus of an extensive exhibit.

She arrived last week to find it in storage, and a brief description in its place.

"That just knocked me down," Payne said. "I wasn't expecting that, and it hurt me to the core."

By the end of the morning, museum president Russ Wigginton committed to seeking out family photos and oral history surrounding Larry’s death.

"Because they had the courage to reach out and share their disappointment and frustration, it set us up to have a next-level relationship," Wigginton said."

Payne’s death, March 28, 1968, was on the same day that a demonstration by Memphis’ striking sanitation workers had turned into a clash between police and protesters.

Officer Leslie Dean Jones suspected Payne of looting, and chased him into a room connected to the courtyard of his mother’s apartment complex.

When he emerged, the officer shot him. The police report says he had a knife. Witnesses say he had both hands on his head. Ryan Jones, the museum’s educator and lead tour guide, said his death is a familiar story in America.

"Larry Payne was first," Jones said. "He was Memphis' own 'Hands up, don't shoot.'"

Though a civil suit by Payne’s parents was unsuccessful, Carolyn wants to carry on the fight. Her sister Macie Payne Wade wants a documentary done about his life. And her niece, Ava Smith, wants to raise awareness about the mental health impact of killings by police on children. She was 10 years old when he died, but recently was still seeking counseling.

"So we have to, as people, come together and not just forget about the people who weren't doing anything to harm anybody," Wade said. "Just a police stop and you die. That hurts, you know. That hurts."

After losing their brother once, Payne’s sisters refuse to see him lost to history.