In Memoriam: John A. Payton (1946-2012)

John Payton, the prominent civil right attorney who was director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund has died. He was 65 years old.

Payton served as the University of Michigan’s lead attorney during the trail and appeals phases of the Grutter and Gratz cases which were decided by the Supreme Court in 2003 and affirmed the legal status of affirmative action in higher education.

John Payton was a native of Los Angeles. His father was an insurance agent. In 1965 Payton enrolled at Pomona College. At that time he was one of only a handful of black students in the five colleges making up the Claremont College system. By his senior year, Payton had successfully lobbied the school’s administration to recruit more black students and to organize a black studies program. At Pomona, Payton majored in literature and wrote his undergraduate thesis on W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and the Harlem Renaissance. Financial pressures forced him to work and study on a part-time basis. He did not receive his diploma from Pomona until 1973, eight years after he initially enrolled at the college.

After college, Payton enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1974. At that time, the city of Boston was embroiled in its famous school busing controversy. As a law student he worked on taking affidavits from black students who were injured in the race-related violence. At the time he was also engaged in a case involving the NAACP in Mississippi. The civil rights organization had organized a boycott of white-owned businesses that discriminated against blacks. The merchants sued the NAACP in federal court. The suit, if successful, would have ruined the NAACP financially.

After graduation from Harvard Law School in 1977, Payton joined Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, in large part, he said, because it was working for the NAACP in the Mississippi lawsuit on a pro bono basis. Upon joining the firm he immediately went to work on the Mississippi boycott case which was ultimately decided in the NAACP’s favor in the 1979 Supreme Court case, NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware (458 U.S. 886).

Payton became a partner at the law firm and worked for corporate clients such as Cigna Insurance and ABC Television. He also did legal work for the Nigerian government.

From 1991 to 1994, Payton took a leave of absence from the law firm to serve as corporation counsel for the District of Columbia. While serving in that post, he was expected to be named by President Clinton as assistant attorney general for civil rights after the president deserted his nomination of Lani Guinier for the post. But when Payton appeared before the Congressional Black Caucus, he appeared not to make a strong case in support for the continuing need for certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Many members of the Caucus voiced uneasiness about the pending nomination. Finally, when the Washington Times revealed that Payton had voted only once in the 16 years he lived in Washington, support for the nomination evaporated. Payton returned to Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in 1994. During this period he held the prestigious post of president of the District of Columbia Bar.

In 2008, Payton was named Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Upon hearing of Payton’s death, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous stated, “John Payton was one of the greatest civil rights lawyers our nation has ever had and our world has ever known.”

President Obama issued a statement that said, “A true champion of equality, he helped protect civil rights in the classroom and at the ballot box. The legal community has lost a legend, and while we mourn John’s passing, we will never forget his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.”

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