'Whom Shall I Send? Send Me!'

Professor Charles Ogletree on the life and legacy of the late civil rights lawyer John Payton.

From left: John Payton, Judge Harry Edwards, Capt. Buddy Vanderhoop,
Charles Ogletree and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Dear John,

I'm sitting at my computer, with tears falling from my eyes, writing this letter to you. These are tears of pain in losing you because you were like a big brother to me. They are also tears of joy, celebrating and remembering the nearly 37 years I've known you since we met at Harvard Law School in the fall of 1975. Although I have often thanked you for your friendship and guidance throughout my adult life, I'm not sure you realized how much your friendship has meant to me. I want to try to express it now as I reflect on the good and bad times, the ups and downs, and your constant support of me, no matter what challenges life brought my way.

As I write this letter, I'm reminded that your passing away on Thursday was the end of our time together over these many years and the culmination of the difficulties life has offered these past six months. You know the pain I felt when our dear friend Derrick Bell passed away last October. He was not only my teacher, but my inspiration in understanding and pursuing a career in law and social justice.

You know how difficult it was to lose another dear friend and mentor, former D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton, when he passed away last November. I tried cases before him as a young public defender, and watched him, over more than 30 years, come to Harvard Law School and patiently teach thousands of students legal ethics and strategies in trial advocacy. I was overwhelmed with sorrow earlier this year when my mentor and friend, federal district court Judge Robert Carter, passed away in January. Just a week ago, a dear friend of more than 30 years, Chuck Rouselle, passed away, and I wept as I remembered our wonderful and joyous years at the District of Columbia Public Defender Service, and our friendship since then at so many social and political events. I cherish the friendship and mourned the loss of all of these great African-American men. And then I lose you. Sixty-five years young. Full of energy. Always ready for the battle and always willing to lead the fight for equal justice under the law.

I remember how you warmly greeted me in 1975. I remember when we were co-counsel on a case in a criminal law clinic at Harvard. I remember our representation of a client charged with multiple counts of burglary, and our conversations with him before a court appearance. I remember our sense of good fortune when the complainant did not appear in the prosecutor's office that morning, and the assistant district attorney had to move to dismiss the case. You shared with me that this "criminal law stuff" was not your calling and that you would pursue a career in civil rights.

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When we both left Harvard, you and I went to D.C. to work for different institutions. You joined the Wilmer Hale firm, and I the D.C. Public Defender's office. Every time I had a matter that needed urgent help, I turned to you and you never said no. When I wondered whether I could leave the Public Defender's office and teach at Harvard Law School, you said, "Yes!" You were a true friend. You supported and encouraged me even when I doubted myself.

In every step in my career, you were the big brother, guiding me in my work, and making sure I stayed focused on my goals. When Randall Robinson, Rev. Walter Fauntroy, Dr. Mary Frances Berry and others got arrested at a protest against South Africa, you quickly joined the team of lawyers with me and helped to represent thousands who were similarly arrested. Your stoic focus on the clients before us, and the goal of ending apartheid in South Africa, was a constant reminder of not only your great lawyering skills, but also your commitment to the larger sense of justice guiding our work. While you focused on the law and Constitution like a laser beam, you also took the time to make sure that those of us around you not only understood our part, but also developed skills that we could pass on to others as well.

I remember your unyielding commitment to justice and equality as a young lawyer. Your inspiring work on the 1982 NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. case supported the NAACP's constitutional right to boycott businesses run by white merchants. I saw your passionate argument in the Richmond v. Croson case about affirmative action. The United States Supreme Court ruled against you, but you did not give up the fight.

The most remarkable work I ever saw in a case, from start to finish, was your extraordinary work in the Gratz and Grutter cases. Most people will remember your name on the briefs and your outstanding argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. I remember so much more that says a lot about you as a lawyer. You were incredibly passionate with your clients, organized a large group of experts on diversity, pressed civil rights groups to understand how these were perhaps the most important cases since Brown v. Board of Education, litigated the cases in the District court and the 6th Circuit Court of appeals and won, and ultimately successfully argued the cases before the Supreme Court.