“Diverse democracies depend on diverse people who know and respect each other.” – John Payton
Marc H. Morial
– John Payton
Over the past century, the most powerful force behind America’s on-going struggle for equality has been an outstanding group of civil rights attorneys. Imagine where we would be today without lawyers like Charles Hamilton Houston – “the man who killed Jim Crow” — or his protégé, Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who in 1940 founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF).
For over 70 years, LDF has been America’s first and foremost civil and human rights law firm. During that time, the organization has had just six leaders: Thurgood Marshall, Jack Greenberg, Julius Chambers, Elaine Jones, Ted Shaw and the LDF’s sixth President and Director-Counsel, John Payton, who passed away last week at the age of 65.
According to a statement on the firm’s website, “Beginning in 1997, he led the firm’s representation of the University of Michigan – from the district court through the Supreme Court – in the Gratz and Grutter cases, which hold that public institutions of higher education may consider race as a factor in admissions in order to achieve the educational benefits that flow from having a racially-diverse student body.”
Payton continued his exemplary defense of civil rights at LDF where, in 2010, he won a Supreme Court employment discrimination case on behalf of a group of Chicago African American fire fighters. He also won a Supreme Court victory in Northwest Austin v. Holder, which upheld a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On a personal note, John Payton was a dear friend and colleague. I worked closely with him on a number of initiatives, including a new effort to develop a collective voice on Education among civil rights leaders. He also recently arranged for the National Urban League to sign onto an amicus brief on the Health Care case that (was) argued before the Supreme Court.
I admired John’s sharp intellect and enjoyed the lively talks we had about the law and Supreme Court strategy. He was a seasoned, thoughtful litigator who earned a place alongside great civil rights lawyers like Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall. President Obama called Payton “A true champion of equality who helped protect civil rights in the classroom and at the ballot box.” I will miss his friendship, his partnership and his humanity. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Gay McDougall, and his wide circle of family and friends.
(Marc H. Morial is the President and CEO of the National Urban League.)