Friends Recall a Giant of Civil Rights Law

Some of those who mourn John Payton share their memories of the NAACP LDF's chief.

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 The Thurgood of Our Generation

I met John Payton in the fall of 1974 at Harvard Law School. John was universally viewed by his classmates, both black and white, as a brilliant student with a maturity and sense of purpose about how the law could be used to advance issues of social justice. We served together on the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Journal, and I was proud to work with him on the journal and confident that he would go on to make his mark in the area of civil rights law -- and he did.

John became the greatest civil rights lawyer of our generation. John was the go-to lawyer in America for defending attacks on affirmative action efforts. When challenges were made to the constitutionality of racial set-asides to assist minority businesses, the black business community and the Congressional Black Caucus turned to John as their lawyer. When the University of Michigan was challenged on the constitutionally of its race-conscious admissions procedures, it selected John as its lawyer. In 2008, when the NAACP Legal Defense Fund needed a new director-counsel to replace the great Ted Shaw, LDF turned to John.

As the co-chair of the LDF board, I urged John to become the director-counsel of LDF. I recognized that the request would require John to uproot his life, that he would have to leave his beloved law firm WilmerHale and relocate to New York. Consistent with his lifelong commitment to civil rights, John agreed to leave his law firm and become the head of LDF. His wonderful and equally brilliant and dedicated wife, Gay, endorsed John's move to LDF. Both John and Gay stepped up to the plate when LDF called.

In my capacity as the co-chair of the LDF board, I had the honor of working with John during his tenure at LDF. John was a wonderful, powerful and brilliant leader. John loved being the leader of LDF -- it was as if he had trained his entire life to follow in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall, and John in fact became the Thurgood of our generation. John was loved by LDF's board and the entire staff. I and LDF's board and staff will miss him greatly -- we have lost a close friend and our leader.

Ted Wells
Chairman emeritus of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Board and co-chair of Litigation at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison

Never Hesitated to Answer a Challenge

Charles Hamilton Houston once famously said that a lawyer is either a social engineer for justice or a parasite on humanity. More than seven decades after the greatest black lawyer of his generation uttered these fateful words, we mourn the passing of my dear friend John Payton, who best exemplified this generation of black lawyers' efforts to live up to Houston's exacting standards.  

John was everything that Houston could have wanted in a social engineer. And he did it at a time when, paradoxically, it is arguably more difficult to live by this credo than it was in Houston's time. Needless to say, John never faced the outright bigotry and threat to life and limb that Houston and his student and protégé Thurgood Marshall confronted on a daily basis during their time at the helm of the organization that Payton would go on to so brilliantly lead. Precisely because of Houston and Marshall's success in defeating the monstrous forces of American apartheid, black lawyers like John and me never had to confront these dangers. Instead we have had the opportunity to forge legal careers about which Houston and Marshall could only dream. This opportunity is, of course, exactly what these original social engineers would have wanted for us and is a crucial part of their legacy. But it has also created a danger that we might forget where these opportunities came from -- and take our eyes off the work that still needs to be done.

John never lost sight of either part of this dual heritage. In his illustrious career, John took full advantage of every opportunity Houston and Marshall's prior victories afforded him, eventually becoming one of the very first black partners in one of this country's leading corporate law firms. Yet even in this most mainstream setting, John found ways to use his position to promote the cause of racial justice.