John Payton Left a Lasting Mark

The late civil rights attorney's influence helped his colleagues be better advocates.

Debo Adegbile, John Payton
Alex Brandon/AP Photo

John Payton, who died on March 22 at the age of 65, had an infectious optimism and confidence that made all good things not simply possible but probable. As the leader of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc., John reset the odds in the fight for equality.

He turned the highest stakes cases, declared “unwinnable” by other experts, into victories. These victories were significant for LDF’s clients — well-paying firefighter jobs for excluded African-American applicants, Voting Rights Act protections for minority voters and unconstitutional death sentences that were set aside. But in the process, John also left a lasting mark on LDF’s staff. Though we mourn his loss with heavy hearts, we are comforted by the knowledge that his legacy as a teacher and mentor will guide us to future victories.

The finest lawyers of our time, including previous distinguished leaders of LDF, recognized that John’s advocacy approach was inimitable. He possessed a razor-sharp intellect, a commitment to rigor tempered by the ability to reflect and recalibrate, passion for history, deep curiosity, the ability to see around corners and, of course, the aforementioned confidence and optimism. But it was the way in which John combined all of these qualities that distinguished him.

The ordering principle of John’s adult life was to ensure that pathways to opportunity and leadership were equally accessible to all — to those whom he knew personally and to those whom he would never meet. This principle lay at the core of his exceptional advocacy in the Michigan higher education cases. It is before the U.S. Supreme Court now in a case involving an attack on the University of Texas’ efforts to create more diversity in its student body. John was actively engaged in this case before he passed away.

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