The multiple doors to the cavernous grand hall on the third floor of the Washington Convention Center were opened early Monday afternoon and a multitude of people poured in from the realms of law, government, the judiciary, academia, and social justice organizations in the U.S. and abroad.
They seemed to flow, rather than move by locomotion, toward the front of the great space – a simultaneously unhurried and yet purposeful surge that was bathed in a luminous blue-tinted light, courtesy of the brilliant, nearly cloudless sky outside that seemed to be gently pressing against the center’s giant clerestory windows. Within moments, the 1,000 seats that had been set on the hall’s floor were filled; and one could feel within it a buoyant, celebratory sense of anticipation.
The tribute to John A. Payton, the late president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who died March 22, was about to begin.
“John left us so suddenly,” said one Payton admirer who had come to the hall an hour or so before the 1:30 p.m. ceremony began, “it’s as if we didn’t get a chance to finish our conversation.”
That was a clue, then, to a primary source of the sense of anticipation. Those who were there had come to support his wife, Gay McDougall, whom he “fiercely loved,” as one of the program’s speakers was to say, and his adored and adoring family.
But they also had come to finish – or, perhaps, find the thread to continue in a different form – their own conversations with John Payton they had found shockingly interrupted by the news of his death.
And so they came to hear again, or hear for the first time the remarkable accomplishments of an African American whose own individual rise reflected the profound array of talents within black America that had lain largely untapped until blacks’ concentrated civil rights-driven struggle after World War II had finally destroyed the bulwarks of legalized racism.
In one sense, Vernon Jordan, a longtime senior member of the LDF Board of Directors, was correct in declaring that “To measure the life, work, accomplishments and meaning of John A. Payton is as if one would take a thimble and try to empty an ocean … Something vast and noble has passed from among us.”
And yet, despite the breadth of Payton’s achievements and the size of the audience, there was a felt intimacy to the event.
Juanita Crowley, a friend and former law partner of Payton’s, explained why in summarizing the quality of his friendship: “John invested in us,” she said.
John Payton, the individual, was a brilliant example of both individual and group potential realized – and, it must be said, of the capacity of the American system to do what it just.
Another example was embodied in the presence of the Attorney General of the United States, Eric H. Holder, Jr., the first African-American to hold that position and a longtime close friend of John Payton, telling those assembled that “Although a tragic and heartbreaking loss has brought each of us here today, it is clear that a truly extraordinary life binds us together. … I am grateful to be one of the many people whose life he touched, enriched and inspired.”
Then, the Attorney General read a brief note from, as he put it, “another of John’s friends” – President Obama and the First Lady. “John was a dear friend of ours,” it read in part, “and he will be remembered as a courageous champion of equality with a fierce passion for fighting discrimination in all its forms.”
Several speakers, among them, Elaine R. Jones, a former LDF president and director-counsel, cogently summarized Payton’s remarkable legal accomplishments and acumen.
“John was our go-to guy,” she said firmly. “When a huge, complex case landed in our laps, we turned to John – for his thoughts, his advice and his advocacy. John was a person who got the job done. John, the complete lawyer – the best of our profession. The advocacy for justice was a part of his DNA.”
She cited several instances during his days as a corporate lawyer in which the civil rights community reached out to Payton to take on critical legal challenges, then said: “Call Payton was code for seeking an experienced advocate. … Call Payton was code for requiring a lawyer with consummate skills, who would take on cases which posed difficult legal issues, often in hostile legal environments.”
Concluding, she told the throng, “There are at least two things we can do in John’s memory, and also for ourselves. One is to help LDF carry on its work—yet unfinished—to make this a more just society. Another is to remember … the certainty that he cared deeply about a more just world, followed by the certainty that he wants us to continue the quest for equal justice, fundamental fairness and human dignity which defined his too-short life.”
Debo P. Adegbile, who served as LDF’s chief of litigation under Payton and is now its interim president and director-counsel, said that Payton, the compelling courtroom advocate and tough-minded strategist, was also a caring, supportive leader.
“John led with intelligence, confidence, humor, and an unshakable belief in the power of opportunity,” Adegbile said. “He made us better advocates by forcing us to confront soft spots in our oral arguments, while expanding the reach and power of our strengths, and our resolve to serve our clients.”
Adegbile went on to say that during Payton’s tenure at LDF – “a time shared at once too brief but indelible” – he frequently reminded staff attorneys that their work on clients’ behalf us, our work “strengthens the very fabric of democracy. “
That point was reinforced briefly but powerfully when the next speaker, Christina Swarns, director of LDF’s Criminal Justice Practice, read a hand-written note she had received from Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal, who had spent 30 years on Pennsylvania’s death row, wrote that within a year of LDF’s joining his defense team “I was off death row, and, thanks to John, represented by one of the most respected civil rights litigation agencies in America. But life is, if anything, unpredictable. Within weeks of my leaving death row, news came of the passing of John Payton. To call it a shock would be an understatement. … John Payton shows us that a great impact cannot be measured by time. He brought depth and insight that will continue to radiate not just through the agency but through many of its clients. I know. I am one of them, and I am thankful for our time together.”
Those present were reminded that the breadth of Payton’s commitment – his “burning conviction,” in the words of Attorney General Holder – to democracy literally spanned the oceans, as several speakers discussed his long involvement in the South African freedom struggle.
Dikgang Moseneke, the Deputy Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, recalled Payton’s patient, determined efforts, beginning in the early 1980s, to build a framework of support among lawyers and law firms in the United States for the change there that was becoming more and more imminent. And Cecelie Counts, and Roger Wilkins, who were both deeply involved in the U.S.-based Free South Africa Movement, remembered Payton’s effective – and often, pointed – advice as the activists’ counsel.
Perhaps the most deeply satisfying moments of the memorial service for many came from the remembrances of John Payton from Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, the president of Kalamazoo College, and his sister, Janette Payton Oliver.
Drawing laughs of surprise from the audience, Wilson, who first met Payton as a fellow Pomona College student during the fractious 1960s, spoke of the evolution of the young John Payton “from a surly loner, bright and socially awkward, into a comrade and leader. I saw him overcome incipient male chauvinism, to become a wonderful man who supported and nourished the woman that he loved and the women he worked with … [and grow] from a 1960s revolutionary outsider to a person who would challenge and effectively change the system from the inside.”
Lastly, Janette Payton Oliver, one of Payton’s two sisters (he is also survived by a brother), spoke of the tutelage the three Payton children received from their business-oriented father and “classy” cultured, socially-conscious mother.
“The political conversation in our family was revolving constantly around the politics of race and justice,” Oliver said. “As children, we knew who we were and we knew what that meant. We learned that any privileges of class carried with them a responsibility to others.”
Her brother, the young John Payton, was, she said, “Yes … born brilliant, and independent-minded;” and unafraid of challenging the conventional wisdom about anything.
Yet, he was also a boy “who loved to hang with his friends … reveling in the camaraderie of a multi-racial, diverse group of pals” to whom he was totally loyal.
“John was not just a good brother. He was a terrific one!” Oliver said, as she concluded and the light, happy tone of her voice began to deepen with emotion. “You could call him anytime with a problem. He always helped you think it through to a solution. John saw in us a capacity to conquer our challenges and achieve our dreams.”
Her poignant words recalled one of the central points speaker after speaker had made before her: That the best way to honor John Payton’s life was to continue his work in expanding democracy and opportunity for the victims of callousness and injustice.
“When illness had laid him down,” his former law partner Juanita Crowley had said, “John Payton did not lay down his work. He bequeathed it to us. .. let us pledge to one another that we will embrace his bequest to us – that as he invested in us, we will invest in those who inspired his greatest and most important legal work: those who are not in this room today.”
That, the consensus seemed to be, would be the best way for the friends of John Payton to continue their own conversations with him.
For photos of the April 16 Tribute, see this article  in The BLT: The blog of LegalTimes