Dr. Charles Steele, Jr., the president and the CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization co-founded and first led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said today that the legendary civil rights organization will launch a global movement for the freedom of Pervis Payne, a Tennessee man with intellectual disabilities who was sentenced to the death penalty for the 1987 murders of a 28-year-old Tennessee mother and her two-year-old daughter. With the announcement, the SCLC joins a growing number of organizations seeking Payne’s freedom. The campaign has led to a massive movement with nearly one million people signing a petition for Payne’s release.
“We feel that Mr. Pervis Payne has been caught in a system where a miscarriage of justice is taking place in terms of him being sentenced for over 33 years and all of that time, he has been on death row,” Dr. Steele said. “It is a miscarriage of justice in terms of his situation. We have researched it. We have talked to the experts. We have talked to the people involved who have worked with this case for many years. We know beyond a reasonable doubt, Mr. Payne is innocent and should be exonerated.”
For the first time in about a decade, Mr. Payne appeared on Friday in a Memphis court for a hearing on his case that could be decided in December. Dr. Steele was in Memphis on Thursday and Friday to support Mr. Payne. The focus of the SCLC’s effort, he said, is to raise global awareness and drive public pressure to free Payne, other innocent death row inmates and to force the U.S. to end the practice of the death penalty.
According to a 2020 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, there are 2,553 people on death row in the U.S, and, of that number, 1,076 (42.15 percent) are White, and 1,062 or 41.60 percent are black when Black people make up less than 14 percent of the U.S. population. Texas leads the nation with 572 inmates on death row. There are 13 in Tennessee. Zane Floyd of Nevada is due to be executed on July 26th.
“First of all, I do not believe in the death penalty,” Dr. Steele said. “Who are we as human beings to take a life when God gave a life? I believe people who have been involved in crimes and those who perpetually commit crimes, should be punished, but not at the hand of the death penalty. Give them life without parole. This gives an opportunity for those who really know the facts and have researched the facts to bring about the exoneration of people, preventing them from being executed. What if Mr. Payne had been executed prior to his 33 years on death row, then that would have been an innocent man killed just because of the discrimination from people who said he wanted to have a sexual encounter with a white woman after he looked at an issue of Playboy Magazine. Many people of color have been lynched because of the stigma surrounding… white woman.”
Dr. Steele said Americans and those of influence internationally cannot sit idly by and allow this miscarriage of justice to continue. Of the people on death row, five percent are innocent, and no innocent person should be executed.
“We have a right to protect and a right to educate in the court of public opinion that what took place over 200 years ago as far as lynching and unjustifiable executions of people of color is still happening today,” Dr. Steele said. “It is just another form of slavery and modern-day lynching. Memphis, the state of Tennessee and human beings around the world must be accountable. The Jim Crow mentality is why Mr. Pervis Payne is up for execution.”
Dr. Steele added, “If you believe in fairness, you need to get behind this movement on Pervis Payne. You need to march right now. You need to understand what Dr. King said when he said, ‘Silence in the face of evil is evil itself.’ You are just as bad as the prosecutor and people who want to execute him if you do not open your mouth and support this movement. Free Pervis Payne.”
About The SCLC
Established in 1957, the SCLC, whose first president was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is an international organization made up of chapters and affiliates with programs that affect the lives of all Americans: North, South, East, and West. Its sphere of influence and interests have become international in scope because the human rights movement transcends national boundaries.