Friends Recall a Giant of Civil Rights Law
Some of those who mourn John Payton share their memories of the NAACP LDF's chief.
What the public will remember of him is that he was a superb litigator who successfully devised a strategy in two of the most difficult affirmative action cases of our time, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, the latter in which the Supreme Court upheld race-conscious admissions in higher education in 2003. Now that the Supreme Court is considering another affirmative action challenge so ominously soon after the Bollinger cases in Fisher v. University of Texas, John's legal guidance will be sorely missed.
John volunteered his time to argue many civil rights cases while he was a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm WilmerHale (previously known as Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering). He left a comfortable perch as a partner there to take on the biggest, most difficult and rewarding challenge of his career -- becoming the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., the historic litigation leader in the civil rights movement. He brightened when he talked about the chance to give back and use his prodigious legal skills full time for the sake of equal justice under the law.
John was also an important adviser to the White House and a close and effective adviser and friend to Attorney General Eric Holder. He was a great collaborator of the ACLU and helped educate the wider civil rights and civil liberties community about the lurking threats to hard-fought civil rights gains.
But the measure of a man is not just his résumé. John was a bracing critic when he didn't agree with the characterization of a civil rights challenge. But beneath his very serious public demeanor and sometimes stern tone, he was a man who could roar with laughter at a funny joke and who could mischievously tease his friends.
On the many times I saw him with his brilliant, world-renowned human rights activist wife, Gay McDougall, I saw a twinkle in his light eyes of pride and admiration for his dynamic spouse. Over the years they hosted numerous parties on behalf of varying social causes, inviting foreign and domestic dignitaries to their elegant D.C. home so that they could meet with American nonprofit leaders. Gay was instrumental to John's success at NAACP LDF, lifting up his leadership in ways large and small.
Laura W. Murphy
Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office