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
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
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