Last December during a massive “Stand for Freedom” rally in Manhattan, John A. Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told a throng of marchers that “These are dangerous times we’re living in, but we’ve won in the past and we will win in the future. It’s getting harder and harder to register our votes and these efforts disproportionally affect people of color.”
That passionate voice for justice was stilled last Thursday when Payton, 65, died in Baltimore, said Lee Daniels, a spokesperson for the fund. No cause of his death has been determined.
Active in the civil rights movement since his student days at Pomona College in the sixties, Payton assumed the leadership of the fund in 2008; its sixth leader since it became a separate unit from the NAACP in 1940.
In recent months Payton was a notable presence at demonstrations, speaking out against the voter suppression, joining his indignation along with a multitude of union and civic leaders from around the nation.
“John Payton was one of LDF’s—and history’s—most brilliant lawyers,” said Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.
“He was respected, effective, admired, and cherished. I knew John as an empathetic, wonderful and decent human being. His passion for equality and justice was emblazoned in his bones and soul.”
And it wasn’t only on the ramparts where he was a commanding force. He was also a formidable advocate in the courtroom. Two years ago, the same year the National Law Journal named him among the decade’s most influential lawyers he was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in Lewis v. City of Chicago, where African American firefighters had filed a discrimination suit against the city.
Payton contended that the examination cutoff score of qualified applicants was unfair to minority applicants. While the city conceded that fact, it nonetheless charged in a lower court that the statute of limitations made the matter null and void.
Later, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision.
Born in Los Angeles on Dec. 27, 1946, Payton attended Pomona College in California and despite being among a few Black students on campus challenged the administration to recruit more Black students. After this was done he led the struggle to add Black Studies to the school’s curriculum.
Upon completion of his undergraduate degree in 1973, he enrolled at Harvard Law School, just in time to get embroiled in the highly charged busing movement. He immediately threw himself into the controversy, working to take testimony from Black students injured during the violence.
Payton graduated in 1977 and secured employment with the Washington-based law firm Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr.
After several years working as a corporation counsel for the District of Columbia, in 1993 he was nominated to be an assistant attorney general for civil rights by President Clinton.
His nomination to the post was opposed by several members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were not satisfied with his response about the Voting Rights Act and whether it permitted the creation of districts with a majority Black voters. He withdrew from consideration.
In 1994, he was among a number of legal experts selected to monitor the presidential elections in South Africa.
“The legal community has lost a legend,” President Obama said, “and while we mourn John’s passing, we will never forget his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.” Obama said, Payton “helped protect civil right in the classroom and at the ballot box.”
Among his many prestigious accomplishments was a teaching stint as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and Georgetown University Law Center. During the spring of 2007, he taught a course on “The Constitution and Democracy” at Howard University School of Law and was named the James Nabrit Jr. Visiting Professor of Constitutional Law. He served as a member of the American Law Institute and a fellow of the American Bar Foundation.
“John's leadership produced countless critical victories for equal opportunity and voting rights over the years,” said Miles Rapoport, president of Demos. “He led the successful strategy to preserve the constitutionality of policies to protect diversity in higher education, culminating in the landmark case of Grutter v. Bollinger. He guided LDF's defense of the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, preserving this key voting rights protection in the face of a constitutional challenge.”
Payton is survived by his wife of 20 years, Gay McDougall; two sisters, Janette Oliver and Susan Grissom; and a brother, Glenn Spears.