Remembering John Payton

The late NAACP LDF president was so effective he once roused Clarence Thomas from his vow of silence.

Robin Marchant/WireImage
Robin Marchant/WireImage

If you’ve ever worked as a lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, no matter how long ago or for how long, then you are a member of a large, extended family of some of the smartest, most inspiring individuals you’ll ever meet. Many of us manage to stay in touch by email, or we run into one another at conferences. 

The best reunions are those over strong, post-dinner cocktails at the bar of the Smokehouse at LDF’s Annual Civil Rights Institute in Virginia. We exchange experiences of arguing before indifferent judges; we share memories about cases won and often lost, amazing clients, witnesses who changed testimony on the stand, tips on the cheapest, best hotels in the South; and the belief, against all odds, that we can win the fight for full civil rights for blacks in this country.

The last time I spoke at length with John Payton, the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who passed away suddenly Thursday night, it was during just such a conversation. He was with his beautiful, brilliant wife, Gay McDougall. When I was in college, Gay was the woman I wanted to become. A fierce anti-apartheid advocate, she continues to be a powerful force in international human rights.

At the Smokehouse, John was laughing, but he had a head of steam up. We talked about the latest Supreme Court outrages and about history. John could brilliantly mine legal history to present a stunning picture of the Supreme Court’s timidity in upholding the constitutional rights of racial minorities. But, as always, John seemed part outraged, part amused. Like the best civil rights lawyers and advocates I’ve known, he didn’t let the weight of what he knew and had experienced get to him. It helped that John knew that he was smarter than most of the lawyers he opposed. 

He meticulously prepared for his cases, mastering the facts, the history and all of the legal arguments available. He had no fear in the courtroom, the boardroom or any other public space. John’s sense of his own brilliance was not hubris. It was an essential quality for a man who had risen to become partner at one of the most powerful law firms in Washington, D.C., who had been corporation counsel for the District of Columbia and who would go on to argue some of the most important civil rights cases of our generation before the United States Supreme Court.