When news spread about the death of longtime New Jersey Rep. Donald M. Payne, it did not take long for leaders across the nation to react to the loss of the formidable 77-year-old leader, who was known for fighting hard for workforce protections and equality in public education.
President Barack Obama was among the first to respond with words of sorrow over the loss of a pioneer and expressions of gratitude for his years of public service. "Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Congressman Donald Payne, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus," the president said in a statement released by the White House. "By any standard, Don lived a full and meaningful life. After serving as the first African-American president of the National Council of YMCAs and then several years in local government, Don went on to become the first African-American congressman to represent the state of New Jersey."
Obama continued to celebrated Payne's accomplishments in Washington, saying, "He made it his mission to fight for working families, increase the minimum wage, ensure worker safety, guarantee affordable health care and improve the educational system. He was a leader in U.S.-Africa policy, making enormous contributions towards helping restore democracy and human rights across the continent. Don will be missed, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends during this difficult time."
Congressional Black Caucus chairman Emanuel Cleaver also released a statement on Payne's passing. "Congressman Payne provided me with a tremendous amount of support as I became the CBC chair. I am particularly grateful for his constant encouragement and lessons on the great history of this caucus. At a time when the political rhetoric has become toxic and elected officials often pander to their basic instincts of the most radical part of themselves, Donald Payne continued to represent his constituents as a forceful statesman," he said.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz released a statement of praise. She called Payne a fierce advocate for workforce protections for America's working families and a leading advocate of high-quality education. She also praised him for being an active supporter of funding for Head Start, Pell Grants and affordable student loans.
Wasserman Schultz said that many knew Payne as a powerful voice for peace in the Darfur conflict; she also said that as the former chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, he dedicated himself to the critical mission of addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa.
"I am deeply saddened by the passing of my colleague, Congressman Donald Payne," Wasserman Schultz said. "As the first African-American elected to represent New Jersey in Congress, Don was truly a tireless champion for the city of Newark, for the 10th Congressional District and for all of the less fortunate among us who needed a voice in the halls of power."
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) also weighed in, calling Payne an unwavering champion of working people here and around the globe. "I am very sad to learn of Congressman Payne's passing," Rep. Johnson said a prepared statement. "He spoke for the disenfranchised and the powerless and gave us — especially in the Congressional Black Caucus — mentorship, leadership and direction."
Johnson said that Payne's experience as a teacher helped drive him to work tirelessly for educational opportunity. "I'll never forget his mentorship during my work on Uganda in 2007, when I called on the government of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army to recommit to peace negotiations," Johnson said. "That was just Donald — always willing to lend a hand with the heart of a lion. My thoughts and prayers go out to Donald's family."
Black leaders also took to Twitter to share their thoughts:
Cory Booker @CoryBooker
We mourn the loss of our home grown hero and Champion. RIP Congressman Donald Payne.
Russell Simmons @UncleRUSH
RIP Congressman Donald Payne
Donna Brazile @donnabrazile
RIP NJ Congressman Donald Payne. Sending condolences to his family, constituents and colleagues. Payne was a staunch fighter for Africa.
Jelani Cobb @jelani9
Just seeing that Rep Donald Payne has died. We lost a consistent and committed voice on African policy. This is a big loss.
John Lewis @repjohnlewis
Rep. Donald Payne was a true statesman and a champion for the least among us. He will be deeply missed.
Reverend Al Sharpton @TheRevAl
Saddened to hear about the passing of NJ Congressman Donald Payne. He was a good man and dear friend. May he rest in peace.