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

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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. 

I should have told you then, after praising you and your efforts, what I tell you now.

Your performance reminded me of the efforts of the late Charles Hamilton Houston. As you know, Houston, an African-American lawyer, was born in 1895 in D.C., attended Amherst in the early 1900s and was the first African-American editor on the Harvard Law Review. He then taught at Howard Law School, training remarkably gifted law students such as Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill, and set the legal stage to challenge Jim Crow segregation in the United States. His cases were always well-prepared, and his clients and junior lawyers were always learning as he taught them the inner workings of the legal system.

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