MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There were no police body cameras or cellphone videos when Elton Hayes died after an encounter with the Memphis Police Department more than a half-century ago. But the similarities between Hayes’ death and that of Tyre Nichols in early January are striking.
On Oct. 15, 1971, Hayes, a 17-year-old Black youth, was allegedly beaten into unconsciousness with nightsticks by members of the Memphis Police Department and deputies with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. Hayes was a passenger in a vehicle with two other teens that were attempting to outrun police in a “high-speed chase” in the Capleville neighborhood of southeastern Memphis.
He died eight hours later from severe head injuries.
FIFTY-ONE YEARS AGO. 17-year-old Elton Hayes was beaten to death in a ditch outside Memphis, by law enforcement officers after a high-speed chase. The Shelby County ME ultimately ruled that Elton died from multiple blows to the head.#JusticeForTyre #JusticeForAll#HumanSecurity pic.twitter.com/OBDA4NFsQB— Louis Werdebach (He/him) #SigVoice (@sigvoice) January 28, 2023
After the incident, Memphis police Chief Henry Lux relieved 23 officers while an investigation was conducted, according to The New York Times.
Hayes’ death ignited a week of rioting in Memphis in late 1971, which led to two deaths, The Tennessean reported.
Police originally reported that Hayes suffered fatal injuries when the pickup in which he was fleeing with two other youths crashed.
>> To see the unedited video released by the Memphis Police, click here. Warning the videos are graphic and contain profanity.
But a preliminary autopsy, according to Attorney General Phillip Canale, showed that “there’s a probable homicide involved not growing out of the automobile accident.”
Criminal indictments were handed down against six Memphis police officers and three Shelby County sheriff’s deputies. Four officers were eventually prosecuted in the Hayes case and were acquitted after an eight-week trial in December 1973. Another four law enforcement officials were charged with the attempted murder of 14-year-old Calvin McKissack, the third passenger in the vehicle on that night in October 1971.
An all-white, all-male 12-member jury deliberated for 3 1/2 hours before deciding to acquit all of the officers.
According to The Tennessean, Hayes was a passenger in a vehicle driven by 15-year-old George Barnes at about 1 a.m. local time. After eluding police, Barnes skidded to a stop after a second roadblock was set up, according to the newspaper.
“I don’t know why I did it (fled),” Barnes said. “I didn’t want to get caught with my daddy’s truck. I thought I could make it out of the city limits.
“I knew we were either gonna get jumped on or killed,” Barnes told The Tennessean. “I told Elton, ‘We’re gonna have to take this beatin’ or this killin’.”
Barnes said that law enforcement officials swore and used racial epithets at the three boys as they were being hit with the nightstick.
“One lick would come down, then another,” Barnes told The Tennessean. “Sometimes they came down at the same time.
“I never saw Elton again.”
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, speaking with PBS, said that Memphis police Chief Cerelyn Davis’ decision to fire the five officers involved in the Nichols incident “was very healthy.”
“What happened before that fact is obviously really disturbing and, in some ways, more disturbing, on a certain level, when it’s Black officers involved,” Marcus said. “It’s horrifying when a white officer shoots and kills or is responsible for the death of a Black man like George Floyd.
“But, in those situations, police departments may have a theory of how they can improve themselves. They can make clear that racism is unacceptable. They can integrate their ranks and bring in people who theoretically will not treat members of the community that way.”
Hayes, who was born Nov. 28, 1953, is buried at Galilee Memorial Gardens in Memphis. On the findagrave.com website, a flower was left in his honor, allegedly attributed to the Memphis Police Department.
Information from newspaper archives was used in compiling this report.
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