After more than 14 years of waking up early mornings and going to his small office that sits in the back of Church's Chicken at the intersection of the Medgar Evers Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Bill Payne remains passionate about his franchise. He greets each employee with a smile every day, displaying his appreciation for his or her hard work.
Calling his establishment a "shining star for the community," Payne and his late wife, Helen, who died of thyroid cancer in 2009, purchased the restaurant in 1992. In front of Church's, at the intersection now known as Freedom Corner, the couple paid for a civil-rights monument featuring the profiles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers--the first National Association for the Advancement of Colored People field agent for Mississippi.
White supremacist Byron De La Beckwith assassinated Evers in 1963 at his nearby home. Five years after Payne erected his monument, in 1997, the city of Jackson placed another monument of the civil-rights leaders across the street.
"There is no other corner in America that has the significance that this corner has," Payne says. "We recognize these two pioneers because they are the reason for us being here, and we wanted to give this community something to be proud of."
The 71-year-old entrepreneur, who grew up in Meridian, began his career with Church's Chicken in 1970, starting as an assistant division manager in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas, followed by a stint as the regional manager of a restaurant in Atlanta, before he relocated to Philadelphia, Pa., where he met his wife and started his family.
With aspirations of being his own boss, he moved to Mississippi in 1992 and opened his own franchise. Payne's son Brian, 40, now works with him as a partner.
Payne provides free meals to Jackson Public Schools band members who march in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Parade Celebration each January and to senior citizens every Tuesday and Thursday--something he has done since the day he opened the restaurant. He also covers the cost of a meal for those who are unable to afford one whenever possible.
Since he took over ownership of the restaurant, Payne says, the number of robberies has gone down dramatically. He credits this to the respect he has earned through his good deeds.
"I was always taught where much given, much is expected. I treat each and every customer with respect, regardless of how they carry themselves, because a business cannot exist without customers," Payne says. "I know all of the 'thugs' in the area, and they don't bother me or my establishment, because we've earned their respect in this community."