John Payton Left a Lasting Mark

Alex Brandon/AP Photo
Alex Brandon/AP Photo

John Payton, who died on March 22 at the age of 65, had an infectious optimism and confidence that made all good things not simply possible but probable. As the leader of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc., John reset the odds in the fight for equality.


He turned the highest stakes cases, declared "unwinnable" by other experts, into victories. These victories were significant for LDF's clients — well-paying firefighter jobs for excluded African-American applicants, Voting Rights Act protections for minority voters and unconstitutional death sentences that were set aside. But in the process, John also left a lasting mark on LDF's staff. Though we mourn his loss with heavy hearts, we are comforted by the knowledge that his legacy as a teacher and mentor will guide us to future victories.

The finest lawyers of our time, including previous distinguished leaders of LDF, recognized that John's advocacy approach was inimitable. He possessed a razor-sharp intellect, a commitment to rigor tempered by the ability to reflect and recalibrate, passion for history, deep curiosity, the ability to see around corners and, of course, the aforementioned confidence and optimism. But it was the way in which John combined all of these qualities that distinguished him.

The ordering principle of John's adult life was to ensure that pathways to opportunity and leadership were equally accessible to all — to those whom he knew personally and to those whom he would never meet. This principle lay at the core of his exceptional advocacy in the Michigan higher education cases. It is before the U.S. Supreme Court now in a case involving an attack on the University of Texas' efforts to create more diversity in its student body. John was actively engaged in this case before he passed away.

As an important oral argument approached, I recall John asking me to tell him the question that I was "most worried about," adding, "that is the question that I'll ask you at the next moot and then you will welcome, not fear, it during the argument." He asked the hard questions and helped us craft the most compelling answers.

Because he always believed in his LDF team, we consistently believed in ourselves. Although John ran his leg of the race at full speed, he made sure that he passed the baton so that we would share in and grow from the experience.

There is a straight line between John Payton and LDF's legendary founders. He died in Baltimore, more than 100 years after Thurgood Marshall's birth in that same city. Many of John's accomplishments would have been career-defining, but the core of his genius was how he personified Charles Hamilton Houston. Like his predecessors, John committed himself to building a cadre of civil rights lawyers dedicated to the fight for equality in America and he relished doing it. He deeply enjoyed the years he spent as LDF's director-counsel. 


We at the Legal Defense Fund honor John Payton by continuing the painstaking work of our democracy's founding promise to forge "a more perfect union." This is the work that our nation still requires, and is the work that John prepared us so well to do.  

Debo Adegbile is the director of litigation for the NAACP LDF.