John A. Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has died, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous has confirmed for The Root. He was 65.
Payton passed away suddenly on Thursday afternoon at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore after a brief illness, a spokesman for the LDF told The Root. No further details were available. He leaves behind a wife, Gay McDougall.
Payton, the LDF’s sixth president and director-counsel, leaves a gaping hole in the fight for civil rights. He led the fund’s involvement in five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a bio on the organization’s website:
Two of those cases, in which LDF was either lead counsel or co-counsel, produced critical victories in the areas of voting rights (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder) and employment discrimination (Lewis v. the City of Chicago). It was not surprising, then, that given his record of involvement in civil rights cases before taking the LDF post, earlier this spring the National Law Journal named John Payton one of the most influential civil rights attorneys of the last decade and the Washington (D.C.) Bar Association awarded him the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit. This burst of activity by the country’s first and finest civil rights law firm since its founding by Thurgood Marshall describes both its institutional mission and John Payton’s lifelong personal commitment: to be an advocate for justice, equality and a true democracy for everyone.
Before becoming head of the LDF, he was a partner at the Washington firm WilmerHale. He was also 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.
Payton was a graduate of Pomona College and Harvard Law School.