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)

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.

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