John Payton, Civil Rights Pioneer and NAACP President, Dead at 65

by Latoya Livingston on March 26, 2012

Last Thursday, civil rights advocate and legendary attorney John Payton passed away after a brief illness.  He was 65.  Payton has left a legacy to which very few can compare, but many can admire.  Payton led the way in some of the most groundbreaking civil rights battles of recent memory.  Payton is survived by his wife, Gay McDougall.

No U.S.-barred lawyer can honestly say that John Payton has not touched their legal studies.  They might not know him by name, but they surely know him by the precedent-setting cases with which he was involved.  During the most famous, Grutter v. Bollinger, Payton was lead counsel for the University of Michigan in successfully defending the use of race in the admissions process at its undergraduate college and law school.  The gravity of this case alone, which proved the educational benefits of diversity, has made it possible for colleges and universities to devise a paradigm that allows race to be a factor in admissions decisions.  It is unfortunate that the Payton’s achievements in creating education diversity are currently under attack in Fisher v. University of Texas.

These past few years of Payton’s life have also been very eventful.  Most recently, as the NAACP’s President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Defense and Educational Fund, Payton led the organization’s involvement with five civil rights-related cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including two major victories on voting rights (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder) and employment discrimination (Lewis v. the City of Chicago).   Payton’s staff, and many others, will remember him as “fearless – a guiding light, a brilliant advocate, a mentor and teacher who believed that American democracy thrives when it embraces all of our voices.”

Prior to joining the NAACP, Payton was a Partner and headed the Litigation Department at the law firm of Wilmer Hale where his practice not only centered on civil rights law, but also included corporate and complex commercial matters.  Payton’s commitment to public service led him to take a leave from Wilmer Hale so that he could serve as the Corporation Counsel for the District of Columbia.  During his free time, Payton also served as a president of the District of Columbia Bar, member of the American Law Institute, and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation.

Payton also had a desire to hone the civil rights leaders of tomorrow and spent much of his free time instructing new attorneys.  For instance, Payton spent time as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School – his alma mater – the Georgetown Law Center, and Howard University Law School.  Payton was also involved with a number of civil rights and human rights organizations.

With all of the tireless work that Payton has done for civil rights law, it was not surprising that Payton has accrued a number of accolades during his prestigious career.  Most recently, the National Law Journal named Payton one of the “The Decade’s Most Influential Lawyers,” and the Washington (D.C.) Bar Association awarded him the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit.  In addition, he was a Master in the Edward Coke Appellate Inn of Court.

Payton mentored dozens of young civil rights lawyers and helped them learn the ropes of Supreme Court practice.  One of them is David Honig, president of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.  On Payton’s death, Honig told BBSJ, “John was much more than a master strategist.  He knew how to explain his strategy to those of us who work in the weeds, and deploy all of us who file amicus briefs to work together for a common goal.  No one had more quiet self confidence and moral authority than John Payton.  Everyone who’s practiced civil rights law in America and worldwide, including the President, misses John dearly.”

Payton lived his life striving for his personal commitment: to be an advocate for justice, equality and a true democracy for everyone.  Looking back at all everything he has accomplished in his professional and private life, Payton and his legacy will certainly be remembered for his dedication to that commitment.  He will be a sorely missed.

  • Latoya LivingstonLatoya Livingston is a Washington, D.C.-based attorney with years of experience working in the public and private sector. Attorney Livingston joins MMTC after performing pro bono work for the organization last year.
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