Friends Recall a Giant of Civil Rights Law

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

John A. Payton during a televised appearance (The Daily Show)
John A. Payton during a televised appearance (The Daily Show)

On March 22 the world lost one of its most revered and effective legal warriors in the battle for civil rights: John A. Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. President Barack Obama said in a statement, “The legal community has lost a legend, and while we mourn John’s passing, we will never forget his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.” We asked his friends and colleagues to share their sentiments, as well.

Always a Step Ahead

I was surprised to learn that my mother, who was 79 at the time, had listened to the radio broadcast of the Supreme Court arguments in the Michigan affirmative action cases Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. She said she was not very impressed with most of the arguments, but there was one “young man,” however, with whom she was very impressed. “Let me check my notes,” she said. “John Payton, that’s his name, he was very impressive.” I laughed and said proudly, “Yes, I know John. He is a friend of mine.”

John Payton was my mentor and my friend. How lucky for me. Like so many, I was devastated when I learned that he had died. I met John in 1982, after I applied for a clerkship with Judge Cecil Poole, for whom he had clerked. I interviewed first with John, who was clearly brilliant, funny and intimidating. John recommended me to the judge, who hired me.

Later, despite my hesitance because of my desire to become a civil rights lawyer, John encouraged me to join Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, an elite law firm. John told me of his civil rights work at Wilmer, including representing the NAACP in the Claiborne Hardware Supreme Court case, and convinced me that I could do good work from inside such an institution. He was right.

At Wilmer, under John’s leadership and that of Jim Coleman, the first two African-American partners at the firm, I was able to work on significant civil rights matters. In the first case I worked on with John, I also worked with Gay McDougall, who headed the Southern Africa Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and who became his wife and life partner. It was 1985. The case involved a black American dancer, Barry Martin, who was injured in a car accident in South Africa. The ambulance took the white driver of the car to the hospital but left Martin. A bystander took Martin to the hospital, where he was denied treatment because of his race. Tragically, the young dancer became quadriplegic. We sued the South African government. Heady stuff. We lost, but did not lose the point that the courts could be used in the fight against apartheid. Subsequently, John and Jim coordinated legal representation for protesters in the Free South Africa Movement. I signed up immediately.

John and Gay were leaders at home and abroad in the fight for civil and human rights: bold, smart, creative lawyers committed to the cause. He obviously loved and respected her, and she him. Together, they mentored and inspired many young lawyers.

After I left Wilmer to join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, I still had opportunities to work with John on civil rights cases. We did not always agree on the approach. Of course, for any intellectual argument with John, one had better be well-prepared. He always had some profound legal point that would capture you and make you think differently about the issue, followed immediately by some observation that he found hilarious. He was deeply committed to justice and equality, compassionate, and always a step ahead. He made a difference. We will miss him.

Janell Byrd-Chichester
Partner, Mehri & Skalet, PLLC; former assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.