John Payton was the sixth President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP LDF, a position he held from 2008 until his untimely death after a brief illness in 2012.
During his tenure at LDF’s helm, John guided the organization to resounding legal victories, including Lewis v. City of Chicago, which vindicated the rights of over 6,000 applicants who sought to become firefighters in the City of Chicago, and Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, which turned back a challenge to the constitutionality of a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Before leading LDF, John worked at the law firm of WilmerHale, where he was a partner for a combined total of 27 years. In that capacity, John represented the University of Michigan in two high-profile Supreme Court cases regarding the school’s use of race in its admissions process: Gratz v. Bollinger, which John argued before the court, and Gruttinger v. Bollinger, in which the Court upheld the use of race in college admissions.
He also served as the corporation counsel (now called the attorney general) of the District of Columbia from 1991 to 1994. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated John to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, though his nomination was ultimately withdrawn for political reasons.
In 2010 the National Law Journal named John to its list of “The Decade’s Most Influential Lawyers.” Upon his death, then-President Barack Obama called John a “legend” and “a true champion of equality” who dedicated his life to fighting “discrimination in all its forms.”