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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By pushing to open the doors of the still virtually all-white corporate world, while at the same time mobilizing the resources of his firm to provide pro bono support to traditional civil rights organizations in a host of important cases, John put the lie to the common myth that anyone who went to work for a large law firm was a "corporate tool" who had "sold out" his commitment to social justice. And when the call came to serve the cause of justice even more directly, whether in the D.C. government, South Africa or at the LDF, John never hesitated to answer the challenge. 

I have spent much of the last 25 years studying the careers of the generation of black lawyers who came of age in the world that Houston and Marshall's great victory in Brown v. Board of Education made possible. And I have never seen anyone who exemplified that decision's dual legacy of equal opportunity through integration and social justice through law better than John Payton. I have no doubt that Houston, Marshall, Robert Carter and the rest of the original social engineers have already set a place of honor for John at their table. I will miss him dearly at mine.

David Wilkins
The Lester Kissel Professor of Law and vice dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School

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He Always Delivered

I have been teary-eyed a lot the past few days. I still cannot really believe that John Payton is no longer with us. It was too soon and too sudden. John was at the height of his intellectual powers and he was doing so much sterling work to make life better for others. "How can he be gone?" I keep asking myself. I really cannot fathom this ...

John was a serious, no-nonsense person who did not suffer fools lightly, and he was wonderfully irreverent in tearing down specious traditions to help make our country a better place in which to live. But he was also lighthearted, witty, warm and erudite. When it was time to get something done, John always delivered. President Obama described John as "a true champion of equality ... who helped protect civil rights in the classroom and at the ballot box."

That is an understatement, for John was so much more. He was a brilliant legal scholar and practitioner, an inspiring teacher, a treasured mentor to so many aspiring young attorneys and a loyal and devoted friend to so many of us. All of his friends and colleagues loved and respected him because of his great vision, courage, sterling accomplishments, determination never to be impeded by arbitrary obstacles, grace and goodness. He really was an inspiration.

Judge Harry T. Edwards
U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

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