In the sixties, John Smith and Maurice Lewis started a mass organization called the Invaders. It had a Panther resemblance (black berets, leather jackets), but was called a gang. Their confrontation with the Memphis pigs during King’s first march in support of the sanitation workers’ strike led to the famous ‘riot’. King openly blamed the Invaders for the violence. The story that is told is that he was determined to prove that he could have a ‘non-violent’ march in Memphis so he returned several days later and rest is history.

In 1969, the Invaders became the Memphis branch of the National Committee to Combat Fascism. Due to the conversion of the entire Invaders group, they had a large membership. However, the membership thinned out after several people went to prison following the Texas Court incident in which a couple of members were shot in an armed confrontation with the Memphis pigs.

The comrades had seized a boarded up Memphis Housing Authority unit and moved in families that had been on the Authority’s waiting list for several months. During the standoff with the Memphis pigs that followed, shots were fired by both sides and a number of comrades were arrested. Sometime after that, with a much smaller membership, Memphis became a full Black Panther Party chapter. In fact, Memphis became the headquarters of the state chapter which later included branches in Nashville and Chattanooga.

Maurice Lewis was the head of the chapter and John Smith was responsible for security. Other notable members included Belva Lewis who was married to Maurice; Janice Payne, Maurice’s sister; Willie Henry, survival program coordinator; and Brenda Henry who was married to Willie.

In 1971, Maurice was part of the Panther contingent that traveled to the People’s Republic of China. A transition in the Memphis chapter leadership took place about the time Maurice returned from China and his sister Janice Payne was assigned the title of Coordinator of the Tennessee State Chapter by the Central Committee. This was about the time that I arrived at the Memphis office, having just been released from custody in the US military. The military and I had a minor disagreement over who power rightfully belonged to, the pigs or the people.

I had an old car that I had paid my last $200 for, so I was assigned to assist Willie Henry with the survival programs. We both still laugh remembering how we had that car so loaded down with potatoes that the bumper was scraping the pavement.

Our headquarters was always a rented house that we all lived in together. We were evicted from one after the absentee landlord discovered who she was renting to, but not before we faced down the Memphis police and the sheriff’s department. A huge deputy began kicking the front door in. The door was mostly thick glass and when big John Smith stepped up to the door and said "kick it one more time, fool", the deputy almost broke his neck falling backward off of the porch.

Another house being used as the Party headquarters was bombed while most of us were out selling Party newspapers. Only Brenda Henry and two babies were in the house and they escaped injury. Later that day, the local COINTELPRO pigs were driving past and making remarks that left little doubt who had committed the bombing. We had an incident at our next headquarters that seemed to involve half of the Memphis police department. There were at least 20 patrol cars, several snipers with scoped rifles, the SWAT pigs, and two helicopters. A Party member had supposedly been caught driving with an out of date tag on the car!

The SWAT boys were working themselves into a frenzy and appeared to be getting ready to charge the house, so we had to give them a look at what we were armed with so they could give it a second thought. Their indecision bought enough time for attorneys to work out a deal that prevented what would have been the biggest gun battle in the history of Memphis. All during this siege, comrade Janice Payne was walking around giving orders and carrying the silver .38 that she was always armed with. Several times she opened the front door and yelled at the pigs telling them what would happen if they charged the house.

We lost Janice in 1987 in a freak accident in Minneapolis. A large moving van parked on a hill rolled unexpectedly and pinned her against a car. I once went to jail handcuffed to Janice Payne. That is probably what I am most proud of from my entire life.

By Larry Stone