More than a thousand friends and admirers of the late John A. Payton gathered in mid April at the Washington Convention Center to celebrate his many extraordinary contributions to the cause of justice in American and abroad. We present here the transcript of that service as well as a video tribute John’s A. Payton’s former colleagues at the law firm of WilmerHale produced.
Remembering John A. Payton
Walter E. Washington Convention Center
Washington, District of Columbia
April 16, 2012
[Reverend Nolan Williams & the Voices of Inspiration: Lift Every Voice and Sing]
VERNON E. JORDAN, JR.: Would you please remain standing for a moment of silence in honor of John A. Payton. [SILENCE] You may be seated.
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. It would be as if one sought to measure the expanse of the heavens with the span of the human hand. Something vast and noble has passed from among us. It is like a mighty oak has fallen, leaving an empty and gaping and glaring space against the sky where he stood.
The Book of Samuel says it better: “Know ye not that there was a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?”
As we begin the program, let me firmly remind all the speakers of Gay McDougall’s firm and absolute directive that each and every speaker is limited to exactly three minutes. May I also remind the speakers that there is a trapdoor immediately behind this podium that will automatically open for any speaker — any speaker — who violates the three-minute time limit. [LAUGHTER]
Let us begin.
THE HONORABLE ERIC HOLDER: Where’s Gay? [LAUGHTER] Don’t put the clock on me just yet, okay?
Good afternoon. Although a tragic and heartbreaking loss has brought each of us here today, it is clear that a truly extraordinary life binds us together. John Payton was one of kind and I am grateful to be one of the many people whose life he touched, enriched and inspired. For my wife Sharon, for our children and for me, John was family. And I want to thank his family, especially his beloved Gay, for inviting me to stand with you today, as we pay tribute and bid farewell to one of our nation’s great drum majors for progress, for fairness, and for justice.
Although John was taken from us far too suddenly and far too soon, he spent his time with us here very well. From an early age he understood the importance and the urgency of seizing every moment and seeking out every opportunity to improve the world around him and to reach out to those in need.
I saw this the first time I met John. We were both relatively fresh out of law school and just beginning to consider what we were going to do with our careers. Even then it was obvious that he had big plans, bold ideas, and limitless potential. He was wise beyond his years.
During the nearly three decades he spent as an attorney in private practice where he helped make pro bono work common practice, [to] his time as corporation counsel for the District of Columbia [to his work as] as a monitor during the first-ever democratic elections in South Africa; and, of course, as President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, John built a reputation for excellence, for effectiveness and for his fearless and tireless efforts to advance the cause of equal justice and fulfill our nation’s promise of equal opportunity. Now, he will long be remembered for the central role he played in some of the most consequential court decisions of our lifetime. And there is no question that the impact of his work will echo across and far beyond this country’s legal landscape for decades to come.
John Payton’s legacy is far larger than his consequential civil rights victories. It lies also in the contributions of the attorneys that he mentored and students that he taught and in the ongoing efforts of so many in and beyond this room who will take up and carry forward the work that distinguished his career and defined his life.
John’s spirit will also live on in the hearts and memories of people – really, truly — all around the world who admired him and loved him. For more than half of my life, I was proud and so very lucky to count John as a friend. He never failed to make me laugh, to make me think, or to remind me of what’s truly important. During some of my most personally challenging times, John was there.
As many of you know first hand, John was not a call-up friend. He was a show-up friend – the kind of person who when you needed him would be knocking at your door whether or not you invited him over. And he wouldn’t be there merely to provide words of support, but also to deliver marching orders. To tell you to get up, to get back to work and never ever give up. It’s this quality that I will miss most about my friend.
I will miss that wise voice. I will miss that counsel. But like each of you, I will hold tight to the example he left to all of us of generosity and humility, of compassion and burning conviction — burning conviction! — and of optimism, integrity and unwavering faith.
Although today our hearts are heavy, because of John Payton our lives are richer, our nation is stronger, and America’s future is brighter. So in the days ahead, in his honor, let us get up. Let us get back to work. And let us never give up on his vision of a better world, on the responsibilities we must fulfill and on the promises that we must keep. John wouldn’t have it any other way.
At this time, it is my privilege to share a letter of tribute from another of John’s friends, a good lawyer, I think you all know. He was sorry he could not be with us here today.
Michelle and I were so saddened to hear about the passing of John. We extend our heartfelt condolences as you mourn his loss and reflect upon his life. John was a dear friend of ours and he will be remembered as a courageous champion of equality with a fierce passion for fighting discrimination in all its forms. His legacy lives on in the people he loved and the lives he touched. And it can be seen all around us in a freer, more just America.
Please know that you are in our thoughts and prayers at this difficult time.
ELAINE R. JONES: Hey, where’s the red and blue and green light. … [LAUGHTER] …
There is a sweet, sweet spirit in this place today. And it is caused by our celebration of the well-lived, committed, caring life of John A. Payton, husband, brother, uncle, cousin, friend, colleague, counselor, and leader. To his loving wife, Gay McDougall, and to the members of John’s family here assembled, we thank you. For in the midst of your pain and loss, you have undertaken the task of giving us, John’s legions of friends and admirers, this opportunity to assemble and remember John with admiration, appreciation and respect. Though you grieve, you open your arms to include us and we are all very, very grateful.
On March 23, less than sixteen hours after John passed, his extraordinary wife Gay sent to us the following e-mail.
Yesterday afternoon John, my dear husband and best friend, died. He was a man of great integrity, intellect, compassion and character. He was simply a spectacular human being.
And she went on to say, “I cannot express how much I will miss him.”
Just look, [Gay] just lost the person closest to her in the world as she is on a computer, communicating with us. She, too, is a spectacular human being. [APPLAUSE]
Also, in short, John was our go-to guy. 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. As a college student at Pomona, he pushed for inclusion and fairness. According to his classmate, Barbara Arnwine, John caused a game-changer in the 1967 struggle to increase significantly the number of African American students enrolled in the Claremont Colleges. Her 1968 entering class of 60 African American students was known as the “Big Class” and was a direct result of efforts led by John Payton.
When John joined the Wilmer, Cutler firm, now WilmerHale law firm, in 1978, the trial court [in the case of NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co.] in Claiborne County, Mississippi had already determined the boycott activities of NAACP to be unlawful and had levied a huge organization-breaking fine. As a junior lawyer, John requested assignment to that case, a request his firm granted. Two years later, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled against the NAACP. John worked on the case in the Supreme Court of the United States, which was argued in 1982 by senior partner Lloyd Cutler; and John was right to be proud of the eight-zero ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court reversing the judgment of the Supreme Court of Mississippi, sparing the NAACP from certain bankruptcy. [APPLAUSE]
John, our go-to guy: … [F]ormer LDF attorney Henry Marsh, … the Mayor of Richmond, Virginia, [and] former LDF lawyer Bill Robinson, then Head of the Lawyer’s Committee [for Civil Rights Under Law], knew that the City of Richmond needed outside counsel with substantial experience and law-firm resources to defend Richmond’s plan to include African American contractors as recipients of some of the City’s contracting dollars. The City turned to John Payton. Within two hours of receiving the call, John had permission of the firm to take the case.
Call Payton. Call Payton was code for seeking an experienced seasoned advocate. Call Payton was code for needing an incisive prepared lawyer. Call Payton was code for requiring a lawyer with consummate skill who would take on cases which posed difficult legal issues, often in hostile environments. Make no mistake about It: John did not have to answer the call. Yet, he did over and over and over again.
Now I’m sitting down, Gay. [LAUGHTER] When the Board of the Legal Defense Fund demonstrated its collective wisdom and called John to lead the Legal Defense Fund, once again John responded with his customary grace. And on March 1, 2008, he became LDF’s sixth director-counsel in LDF’s then 68-year history. The Board knew exactly what was needed. No time for [on-the-job training]. No time for a course in the fundamentals. At the helm LDF had to have a seasoned, experienced advocate and had to have [one] right away: Someone who understood the role of Thurgood Marshall’s law firm in securing equal justice under law in today’s changing world. LDF’s former longtime chairman and president, William T. Coleman, now in his ninth decade of life, is here today as a testament to the wisdom of the Board’s choice. [APPLAUSE]
Also of the six director-counsels, Number 3 — Julius Chambers is here — flew up from Charlotte; Number 4 — I’m standing here [APPLAUSE]; Number 5 — Ted Shaw is sitting here [APPLAUSE]; and Number 1 — Thurgood Marshall and Number 6 — John Payton are in the same place. [APPLAUSE]
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 John’s contribution, his legacy with appreciation and respect always.
There is a sweet, sweet spirit in this place today. And that spirit is reflected in the twin certainties which John leaves with us. 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. [APPLAUSE]
JUANITA A. CROWLEY: John became my friend on the day we both began at Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering — October 31st, 1978. Together we went through the typical first day of a new job. Before that day ended we were friends. And so it would be for the next 34 years.
The times and places when each of us joined in John’s world differ, but John’s befriending us is the same. When a great heart breaks, there is much to tell. But as Mr. Jordan told us, I have only three minutes and because I knew John best from our days together at the firm, I will focus there and make two points.
First, John initially became one of this country’s finest civil rights lawyers from his base at a private commercial law firm. That reflects John’s understanding that we can achieve equal justice only when all of us in all of our institutions contribute.
As for John’s contributions at the firm, among the many, I will mention three. The first comes from that same first day. John told me he already was working with Lloyd Cutler and Jim Robertson representing the NAACP in the Claiborne Hardware case that Elaine mentioned, and was certainly headed for the Supreme Court.
I looked over at my new friend to see if he was bragging. I’d met some lawyers who do that. [LAUGHTER] But not so, as John explained the stakes in the case, that if the judgment of the Mississippi State Supreme Court stood granting damages to white merchants in Claiborne County, Mississippi, it could bankrupt the NAACP. John told me he came to the firm so that he could work on that case.
The second example comes just a few years later. John’s contribution to … SALSLEP, the South African Legal Services and Legal Education Project, of which John was a director. There are speakers here today who will speak with much more knowledge than I about John’s commitment to a Free South Africa. But I want to include this one example.
SALSLEP was started in 1981 by American lawyers to support South African lawyers seeking to use the rule of law to end apartheid. In 1997, in gratitude for the leadership by John and others at the firm, President Nelson Mandela gave the firm papers that he had used to prepare his defense in his 1962 treason trial — including notes that he made in his jail cell on the night before he was to hear the sentence on his life. [That gift was] President Mandela’s recognition of work that John began only four years after graduating from law school.
When you come to the firm, the first face that you will see, the first voice that you will hear are John’s as he narrates a video that plays in the lobby describing the Mandela papers. When he left the firm to lead LDF in 2008, we were so proud. But I missed him. I welcomed seeing that face each morning, hearing that voice each evening as I left the building. Now that tape still plays, but it’s different.
The third example is his leadership of the University of Michigan affirmative action cases. You can listen to the Supreme Court argument that John made through a link on the Court’s website. Do it. John was masterful.
But the work that secured the victory in that case started six years earlier, before the complaint was even filed. John understood that the compelling interest in a racially diverse educational experience is not a political or philosophical debating point. It is real. The changed lives are real. The imperative for our democracy is real. The greatest lawyering by John and his team in that Michigan case was developing the proof to demonstrate those realities.
That brings me to my second point: John’s investment in all of us. A few days after John died, we gathered at the firm to tell our John stories. Each story was unique because each encounter with John was unique. But at bottom, the stories were all the same. John wanted and listened to my views. John advised me when I needed help. John trusted my judgment. John invested in me. Those stories were the same whether told by the managing partner, the former summer associate or the secretary who sat down the hall from John years ago.
These two points — John’s commitment to civil rights and his investment in us — converge. They come from John’s conviction that the ideal of our democracy, of which he so often spoke, demands the full participation of all of us. At the reception this afternoon, there is a video from clips from John’s speeches. Listen as he makes that point. Hear his conviction. It is the conviction that animated his commitment to civil rights, his investment in us who are here today and his commitment to and investment in those who are not in this room today – the child in Detroit who hopes for a Michigan education; the child in Detroit who gave up by the eighth grade. All of those who are not in this room today, who never heard John’s name, but who, like us, have lost a friend, and they have lost their lawyer.
Because these two points — John’s commitment to civil rights and his investment in us — converge, this also follows: When illness laid him down, John did not lay down his work. He bequeathed it to us. It is John’s embrace of his work for justice and his embrace of us that filled our time with him. It is John’s embrace that draws us to fill this hall today. [So,] 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. Let us embrace John’s bequest to us and thus fill in part the hole that his death has torn in our hearts.
To Gay, to John’s family and to his closest friends, thank you for nurturing him so that he could do so much for us.
And for John, may our actions be our thanks. [APPLAUSE]
DEBO P. ADEGBILE: Good afternoon. John Payton kept promises and because he believed so deeply in our Constitution, he dedicated his life to ensuring that its promises were kept too. John led with intelligence, confidence, humor and an unshakable belief in the power of opportunity. 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.
John had a special passion for attending moot courts as LDF attorneys prepared to argue our difficult cases. He made time for these sessions over and over and consistently helped us to crystallize the most difficult responses. Even in the hardest cases and policy debates, John inspired us to believe that a positive result was not just possible but probable with adequate preparation.
We were privileged to work with John as he offered wise counsel to Presidents, judges, colleagues, students and clients, including those sentenced to death. He made meaningful contributions in each of these circles because he recognized the dignity and value of every person and treated each accordingly. As John realized, the ongoing fight for civil rights is in fact part of a larger fight for human dignity. As leader of LDF, John fought for the rights and dignity of African American firefighter applicants, minority voters seeking to vote, students reaching for enhanced life chances, and those displaced when the levees broke in New Orleans, among many, many others.
At critical moments, John would reassure our clients about their cases and take time to speak with them in detail about the matters that were before the courts. As he frequently reminded us as his advocates, our work on their behalves strengthens the very fabric of our democracy.
As chief counsel and strategist for the University of Michigan in the higher education diversity cases, John made clear that inclusion in college admissions is essential to the success of our nation. The Supreme Court embraced his view and John’s leadership in those cases stands out even among his many signal achievements.
Gay recently described John’s time with us at LDF as the crown jewel of his tremendous career. The way John led us with pride and a special pep in his step, Gay, was proof of your point. Thank you for sharing so much of him with us and thank you for your exemplary marriage and partnership as well.
Reflecting on his career, John once explained “I have spent most of my life attempting to make this a better and more just society, and to make the world a more just world. It’s been exhilarating.” We can hear him say that today; for John really knew both who he was and why he was. At LDF we will certainly miss our leader, our mentor, our friend. But now, as we go forward with very heavy hearts, we are guided by John’s powerful example of just what is required to engage fully in the ongoing struggle for more equality and what becomes possible once we do.
As we reflect on the time that we shared, at once, too brief but indelible, we are reminded that there is something both regal and enduring that flows from a life which opened the pathways of opportunity for others. We will keep our promises to tend those paths and to clear brand new ones. [APPLAUSE]
CHRISTINA SWARNS: Good afternoon. On Friday I received a handwritten tribute to John from Mumia Abu-Jamal, a man who spent thirty years on Pennsylvania’s death row and became the world’s most well-known death sentence prisoner. After visiting with John and Mr. Abu-Jamal in prison, John understood that LDF had to take Mr. Abu-Jamal’s case. And within a year of John’s decision, the death sentence was finally declared unconstitutional and the district attorney announced that it would not seek the death penalty again.
Here is what Mr. Abu-Jamal wrote:
John Payton Remembered by Mumia Abu-Jamal
John Payton spent most of his professional life in the world of corporate law, the height of the profession. When he came to the NAACP LDF, he left that world and entered the realm of civil rights law where issues of life, freedom and death dwell.
He entered with energy and determination and a sense of joy at the conflict. We met, talked shop, and dug each other – a meeting on death row that both relished.
Within a year, 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. But he is remembered for his strong embrace of the NAACP LDF and all that they represent.
A lawyer’s lawyer. He gave kudos and encouragement to younger LDF staffers, instilling not just confidence but inspiration. 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 his clients. I know, I am one of them, and I am thankful for our brief time together.
Thank you. [APPLAUSE]
DEPUTY CHIEF JUSTICE DIKGANG MOSENEKE: Gay, I took you to your word. It is three minutes, I promise.
Ms. Gay McDougall, may I again join you and John Payton’s family in morning the loss of your dear husband and best friend, John. We are deeply pained by his untimely passing on.
For those who don’t know, I am Justice Dikgang Moseneke of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and I am the Deputy Chief Justice of the Republic of South Africa.
When I met Ms. Gay McDougall in the early 1990s and later, her husband, Mr. John Payton, I did not sit in the highest court of our land. Then I was an activist lawyer and a freedom fighter against colonialism and apartheid. I had just returned from serving a 10-year term of imprisonment as a political prisoner on Robben Island. We South Africans who have lived through our revolution, remember with great fondness and gratitude – his, and Gay, your, dedication to the cause of liberation, freedom and democracy in our country: your commitment to issues of the African continent – and, indeed, to issues of the rest of the oppressed and vulnerable peoples of the world. You, with John’s support, raised funds and garnered other support to fight court cases, not in the U.S., but in South Africa for apartheid victims; and to sustain families of political prisoners who needed to keep hope alive and to provide starting material for political prisoners. Those prisoners, including me, are today leaders of our great country, South Africa. [APPLAUSE] Thank you.
You both were in the front line in this country calling for sanctions, for sports boycotts, for disinvestment of American capital out of the economy of segregationist South Africa. When the moment of transition from apartheid to democracy came, you and John were with us in South Africa. You served for months on the Independent Electoral Commission that organized the first democratic elections of South Africa. And John, as long, served as part of the international observer nation to see us through that wonderful transition. To have both [of you] right there as this wondrous transition occurred, for these sacrifices and many others, we the people of South Africa and the people of Africa owe you an endless debt of acknowledgement and gratitude. That explains why I am here.
Kabo, my wife, and I have been family friends with you and John for the better part of the last three decades. Not less than twice, my wife and I had the privilege of hosting you in our home in South Africa. On the first occasion you came to the inauguration of Mr. Nelson Mandela, the first democratic president of the Republic of South Africa.
On the second occasion, you and John had again come to witness the swearing in of our second president of the Democratic Republic of South Africa, Mr. Thabo Mbeki.
It seems no longer high fashion to stand up and litigate for the vulnerable in society or to pursue social justice. And yet, John Payton, as you’ve heard, gave up a lucrative practice, private practice, for the leadership as president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. That speaks to his compassion, to his integrity, and as we say, in Africa, “To his ubuntu.”
The Black Lawyers Association of South Africa has set a long and ongoing collaboration of fraternal relationship with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund — first under the leadership of Mr. Julius Chambers and I’m delighted to hear that he is here present today; and now under the leadership of John Payton — over continuing legal education and professional challenges to minority or previously disadvantaged practitioners.
I’ve been asked by many progressive lawyers, bodies, such as the Black Lawyers Association, the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, various formations of civil society and individuals who served with you during our struggle for liberation, to salute you, John Payton; to thank you for a life well lived. You shared your gifts, a remarkable selflessness, the great signature of African humanity with us, and for that in my language we say “… leboha”. Thank you and May God bless. [APPLAUSE]
CECELIE COUNTS: John Payton was the lawyer for the Free South Africa Movement. And for those of you who don’t know, the Free South Africa Movement began almost thirty years ago at a time when celebrity arrests in front of an embassy were unheard of. As a matter of fact, it was a frightening time.
President Reagan had been re-elected. The U.S. government’s policy towards South Africa’s apartheid regime was one of constructive engagement, and the people in the United States who had worked for decades against colonialism and apartheid were themselves suffering as they had not for many years.
The Reagan Administration was a hostile one to the forces that we represent today. So, we were desperate as we tried to mobilize popular opinion against the U.S. political enablers and corporate beneficiaries of apartheid by waging a campaign of civil disobedience in front of the South African embassy.
Now, we had no idea what might happen when we described our plans to John and we were quite nervous about the legal repercussions we might face. John quickly told us, “I’m a corporate lawyer so I’ll contact Charles Ogletree over at the Public Defenders Service and see what [LAUGHTER] he knows. And he’s going to need a lot of help because, after all, he needs to keep that job, so I’m going to assemble a team of lawyers that can help him.”
Now, of course, the truth is no one wants to get arrested. And we needed to provide a constant supply of potential arrestees in order to keep the drumbeat going against the Reagan Administration. So, we needed ordinary Americans, the kind of people who spent their entire life trying to stay out of jail. And we had to convince them that it was actually safe to go to Massachusetts Avenue [where the South African Embassy was located], not exactly a popular neighborhood for the grassroots; protest; go up to the door of the South African Embassy and get arrested. The only way we could convince those thousands of people — some celebrities, yes; some from national organizations, yes; but mostly regular Americans who were shocked, just appalled by the images of brutality they were seeing on nightly TV – [was by promising] them that we had the best lawyers available from firms they had heard of [LAUGHTER], and that these lawyers would meet them at the police station and stay with them, every step of the way. And still, people often declined to get arrested saying, “Well, I might need to get a mortgage one day” or “I’m trying to move up in my career and I’m not sure how this will look.”
But [there were plenty] who did get arrested, and I should say the Embassy demonstrations were only the beginning. We had to try many different tactics over the years: protests in front of the State Department; busloads of NAACP members, marching in front of the White House; sit-ins at retailers that sold Krugerrands, the gold coin of South Africa; sit-ins in corporate headquarters, overnight sit-ins in corporate headquarters before finally Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto and of the Anti-apartheid Act of 1986. I’m going to say that again. Congress had to override the veto of President Reagan in order to pass the comprehensive Antiapartheid Act of 1986. [APPLAUSE] And yes, President Mandela finally left prison in 1990.
But I hope you all understand the culture clash that existed between political activists and the corporate attorney types that John represented. It was John’s experience and credibility that helped to protect the Free South Africa Movement from the legal forces that threatened us. But John also challenged us every step of the way. He always played the devil’s advocate and he did not suffer fools or hesitate to tell us when the ideas that we thought brilliant were actually ill advised. [LAUGHTER]
His hard analytical approach and combative style forced us to consider how everything we might do could be perceived under the worst circumstances and by the most hostile forces. Now, we did not always follow his suggestions, but once John left the room, we’d often say, “Hmmmm. Maybe we shouldn’t do it that way. Maybe we could try something else.”
John, simply put, was one to tell no lies and claim no easy victories. So, as others have said, when we think of John, we need to remember his advocacy and we need to challenge ourselves. Beyond the duties of our family and work responsibilities, we should ask ourselves every day, how do we spend our time? Who do you help with your extra time and energy? How many people will remember you if you’re gone in three-and-a-half weeks?
Samora Machel, the first president of Mozambique, wrote a poem for his wife, Josina, after her untimely death in 1971 that is particularly fitting because John and Gay, Gay and John, independently were two fierce legal and political advocates for a Free South Africa, but united they were an even more powerful force.
I’m going to read just two lines from the poem, which is entitled “Josina, You Are Not Dead,” because it summarizes John’s legacy.
Josina, John, you are not dead because we have assumed your responsibilities and they live in us. You have not died, for the causes you championed were inherited by us in our entirety.
Thank you, Gay. Thank you, John. [APPLAUSE]
ROGER WILKINS: There is no way to start this other than to start it with where Cecelie left it. And she was really kind about John. Because John — well, John felt we were crazy. And he would sit there in the meetings and we would say, “We ought to go do X.” John would say, “Hmmmm, ]” [ LAUGHTER] and that went on and on.
And sometimes it was really kind of scary. Like for instance, that place on K Street where we sat-in all day and all night and they locked up the place, including the restrooms, and you’re on the corner of K and 18th. You’re like in a little zoo cage. And people would walk by and they would look at you. You would hold a sign up — “No Krugerrands.” Well, they didn’t know what Krugerrands were. We knew. They should have known.
And so, John would come and he would look at us, and we would be in there and we would wave him in and say, [SOUND]. He would just stand there [making faces] [LAUGHTER] So, they took us to jail the next day, in the morning. Everybody was making jokes and stuff. I wasn’t making any jokes. I had never seen the inside of a paddy wagon and I had never aspired to. But as the paddy wagon left K Street, I saw John on the corner, smiling. He got at us at a level– when we got on our high horse, he could slash us to pieces. And we had to make our case again. His capacity to make the case was extraordinary. And his guts were extraordinary. And his love for us was also extraordinary.
And I can tell you, I am not a man with a whole bunch of courage running around in my veins. And so, when I walked into the police station and all of a sudden knew I was going to be in jail in a lock-up, I was not happy. I was scared to death.
As I was being taken away, I saw old John walking — oh, man, this is it. And it was.
I was a member of the board of NAACP Legal Defense Fund for many years and co-vice chair for a number of those. But I was really in and of a creature of the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
I was born in Missouri, Kansas City and my father died when I was about six years old. My mother found a better job in New York than Kansas City.
This is one time that selective renting for white people and renting over there for black people worked because the apartment that my mother found was in a building where Thurgood Marshall lived, Walter White lived in it, and Roy Wilkins who was my blood uncle also lived in it. And of course, these men were men of heart and they loved children and it was a sad thing that this little boy was here in New York — big city, frightened at what was going to happen. And all of a sudden I had three uncles — Uncle Thurgood and Uncle Walter, and also there was another Uncle who was married to my mother’s sister who lived in the building. And these uncles made life possible for me and created all my values.
Uncle Thurgood was … the most powerful uncle in my life. I worked for him the summer when I was at law school at the University of Michigan, which is a better school, I’m happy to say [because] of what John did for that school.
But I learned from — I couldn’t call him “Uncle Thurgood,” … I couldn’t call him “Mr. Marshall,” but finally after many years when he got on the Court, I did have a name for him which was just “Judge.” And Judge, when I came to work for him in the summer time when I was in the law school, he ran me and ran me and ran me and ran me to get stuff.
And then he would make fun of me, but in a very lovely, light way. And I came to believe that if you’re going to lawyer, this was the kind of place you had to lawyer. It made all the sense in the world to me … [because of what the Judge said to me once].
He said, “These people need to be fought. Not to be counseled, not to be bribed. These people must be beaten, and if not by this generation, the next; and not the next, then the next after that.”
That was a lesson. It was a lesson that has stayed with me all these years. And so I was really delighted when this … young man went to the Legal Defense Fund, when he took up the work …. It made my view of the world — it came back that the view of the world that I got from my battery of uncles when I had been a child.
John was just like those men. Relentless, brilliant, never say stop, and never let a kid think he’s bigger than his britches. So I come over here now today at John’s funeral to say, “We can mourn John. But we do not dare forget him.” And he was about the thing that Uncle Thurgood was about. Get it over with. Win it and win it whether it’s the Mississippi delta or Soweto. Do it. Keep it up. That is the way to live a life.
I’m 80 years old now. I think John packed into his few years more than most people my age can ever dream of. John knew the struggle was long
[Reverend Nolan Williams & the Voices of Inspiration: My Country ‘Tis of Thee]
DANIELLE CONLEY — Before today, I’ve only had to stand on stage and speak in front of hundreds of people one other time. I was the student speaker at my graduation from Howard Law School in 2003 —- and John Payton was our keynote speaker. As I sat on that stage, watching the man I deemed one of my legal heroes in awe, I could not have imagined that he would later have such an enormous impact on my group and my development as a young lawyer and that he would ultimately become the most influential mentor I’ve had in my life.
A few months before I joined WilmerHale as a junior associate, I had filed a small claims court here in DC against a woman whose dog attacked my puppy Jack. [LAUGHTER] Her dog was off of a leash and the attack was so bad that Jack’s front right leg had to be amputated. When I joined the firm, I realized that it was probably a good idea to let someone know that I was a party to a lawsuit (albeit a minor one) and that I was, unwisely, representing myself. So, I went to John. I told him the story. I showed him the pictures of my now three-legged pug, and John said, “I’ll represent you.” [LAUGHTER]
John then helped me think through the issues with the same laser-focus and intensity that he brought to everything that he did. He brought in another partner [LAUGHTER]; he opened up a new business matter. We bounced around theories of liability—it was great.
We settled the case the night before trial, and the next day, John took us for celebratory drinks at the Sofitel [Hotel]. Naturally. No one believes me when I tell them that the same man who argued the Michigan cases before the U. S. Supreme Court was also willing to represent me in a dispute over my dog in small claims court. But for those of us who really knew John, this isn’t the least bit surprising. He not only had a brilliant legal mind, he had a huge heart.
I’m one of the lucky ones that got to work with John at WilmerHale and at LDF. During my short time at LDF as a WilmerHale Fellow, John taught me so much about what it meant to be a true advocate. Now he didn’t do this in a warm-and-fluffy, let-me-take-you-under-my-wing-and-tell-you-exactly-how-to-be-a-lawyer way. That was not John. He did it by throwing me directly into the fire.
Many of you may recall that in the summer of 2009, a country club in Philadelphia refused to allow black children in a summer camp access to the club’s swimming pool. The day the story broke, John was absolutely outraged. All of us were. I called a producer I knew at a news station in Philly to see if I could get the contact number of the camp director that had appeared on the news that morning discussing the incident. I got the number and I was thrilled.
So I ran into John’s office and said, “John, I got the number of the camp director.” And he looked at me coolly and said, “Well, did you call it?” [LAUGHTER]
I said, “No. Shouldn’t — shouldn’t you do that?”
And he said, “You got the number. You call.”
After I called the camp director, I went back to John’s office. I said, “OK, John, the children’s parents are meeting at a school in Philly tonight.” This time he didn’t even look up from his computer and he just said, “So you need to get down there, don’t you?” [LAUGHTER]
Now, to be clear, John then went to Ryan Haygood, a more senior lawyer at LDF and told him to come down to Philadelphia with me, presumably so I wouldn’t commit malpractice.
To me it was unbelievable that he looked to a junior lawyer to take the lead on a matter that was receiving attention the national media.
And that moment that demonstrates what I valued most about working with John. He believed in me. He trusted my judgment. He trusted my instincts. And he wanted me to see exactly what he saw in me.
I’m one of hundreds of young lawyers whose lives John has touched and transformed. At Wilmer, he paved the way for associates of color. He was our champion. He fought for our recruitment and he fought for our retention. Even when John left the firm, we knew that he was still in our corner.
There is no doubt that John’s life’s work and his passion for social justice and equality have left an indelible mark on the legal community. But he was also a teacher whose unyielding commitment to the next generation of social engineers has left an indelible mark on the minds, spirits and hearts of many young lawyers, like me.
I will miss him, his passion, his brilliance – and that infectious laugh – dearly. [APPLAUSE]
EILEEN WILSON-OYELARAN: The Yorba people would say, “An elephant has fallen in the forest.” Like every single one of us, John Adolphus Payton was a work in progress. During our friendship of forty-six years, I watched him evolve 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 [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] who supported and nourished the women he loved and the women that he worked with. And I shared in his journey as he progressed from a 1960s revolutionary outsider into a person who would challenge and effectively change the system from the inside.
John and I met during my first year of college. He kept to himself in those days and that was not at all surprising. In 1966, among the 1200 students at Pomona College, only five were African American. It was easy to be lonely. It was easy to be alone. It was easy not to connect with one another.
In 1966 before we became conscious, we may actually have feared connecting with one another. In spite of this, by the end of my senior year, John and I had become joined at the hip. You could say we grew into adulthood together as we cut our teeth trying to make change at the Claremont Colleges.
John was part of a triumvirate that led the movement that resulted in the creation of the Intercollegiate Department of Black Studies and the Intercollegiate Office of Black Admissions, which he then led for two years. As our student movement progressed, John’s keen intellect, his sense of strategy, his ability to see the goal and not get distracted by the trappings became distinctly evident. In strategy sessions that lasted late into the night, John kept all of us on task. Even in the midst of struggle, John’s commitment to excellence was evident.
By the time we finished a position paper, it was both well crafted and persuasive. As we prepared to go to faculty meetings, we anticipated every question and our orations were refined. We were ready.
Surely this attention to detail was a harbinger of John’s stellar legal career. These were not easy times. We worried about tapped phones, agent provocateurs, reactionary fellow students and just plain crazy colleagues. And despite the steely faces and the clinched fists, John, like the rest of us, knew fear. And yet, he acted from a place of courage with a hope in the capacity for institutions to right themselves.
John Payton carried that courage and optimism into everything he did in life. And he summoned that same level of bravery when confronting the end of his earthy existence — far too soon for his family, for his friends and for this country.
For forty-six years, John Payton was for me an unwavering presence and when he was with you, he was truly present. He was always ready to support, always ready to crack that much needed joke, always ready to listen quietly and to pose very hard questions.
We took pride in each other’s successes, but John never bragged. When he was proud of a particular speech or a brief he had written, he would present it to me as a gift to be opened and shared. He was always eager to hear about the progress of students from Claremont whether they were his peers or whether they were students he had recruited to the colleges. He took great joy in connecting with folks.
In recent years, each time we attended a meeting of the Pomona College Board of Trustees, we had the uncanny feeling that karma had caught up with us. How is it that we, who had so irreverent in 1969, had become the very people we challenged with such toughness, to put it mildly.
And John was a stellar trustee. He stood out for his keen critical insight, his quick ever-present humor, and when he interacted with students, he was simply awesome. And yet, when they called to consult with him, if they had not done their homework, he let them know … hey had not lived up to his expectations.
John Payton was my cultural avatar. During my sixteen years in Nigeria he was the person who prepared the list of books I had to read, CDs I had to buy, movies I needed to see, and technology that I needed to understand. When I peruse my book shelf, John Payton is all over it. John was beyond friend. He was family, a brother to me, an uncle to my children. One whose legal achievements made my father’s heart sing.
And to Gay, John’s passing has led many of us to go to our archives searching for mementos of him, pouring over treasured photos, old and recent. And as we have done so, we have seen the changes in his vision over time, the twinkle in his eye, the genuine smile, his sense of ease in the world. And I will tell you, those were not present back in the day. You, Gay, had so very much to do with that twinkle, with that smile, with that ease. John loved you fiercely and we who loved him have come to love you and we are here. And to Glenn, John was so very proud of the man that you have become.
John Payton was a remarkable human being and my cherished friend. He was in his own words, “the real deal.” I don’t know what I will do without his presence and I know the work that he has left to us must be done. [APPLAUSE]
CHARLES J. OGLETREE: Gay, John Stanley, and friends. I want to thank John Payton for his brilliance, commitment and his foresight. He has made all of us better in our life because of his selflessness. John, thank you for thirty-seven years of guidance and encouragement. Thank you for the confidence you gave me and many other 1Ls when you arrived at Harvard Law School — when we arrived at Harvard Law School in 1975.
Thank you for the confidence you expressed as our cheerleader when so many of us working on the Harvard Civil Rights, Civil Liberties Law Review thought that affirmative action and diversity programs would end after the 1978 Bakke decision.
Thank you and Gay for the weekly dialogues, always unscheduled and always unscripted, to lift every voice and to stand up for those who were without power.
Thank you for organizing in a way that Charles Hamilton Houston, a DC native, Harvard Law School graduate and the teacher of such luminary students as Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill did in the 1930s when you prepared the experts, the parties, the legal arguments and the civil rights groups in your successful argument in Gratz and Grutter the Michigan diversity case before the district court, the circuit court and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thank you for joining me and a band of other lawyers representing Randall Robinson, Mary Frances Berry, Reverend Walter Fauntroy and ultimately thousands of others who voluntarily chose to be arrested in protest of the apartheid system in South Africa. And thank you and Gay for the work you did to complete the liberation of South Africa and free Nelson Mandela after he spent twenty-seven years in prison after fighting to end apartheid. And not only for making sure that he was able to vote in the 1990s, but also clearing the way for him to be the first democratically elected president of South Africa, and that every vote for the first time ever was counted.
Thank you for the many times you came to help me manage the travails of life to become a successful lawyer, scholar and teacher. Thank you for convincing me to renew my academic career as the founder and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. And then you gave a mesmerizing speech about Houston, his life and continuing legacy during our opening ceremony in September 2005.
Thank you much for giving up a partnership at the WilmerHale law firm and [for] the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 2008 and being a central force in the organization’s legal victories these past four years. … It is a constant reminder to all of us of the trailblazing work of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall from the 1930s to the 1950s.
And finally, thanks for the many times that Pam and Gay, and you and I and many others broke bread, talked politics and in our own way pursued career paths promoting justice and equality.
I feel privileged to have for the last decade spent an August day on Martha’s Vineyard fishing with Captain Buddy Vanderhoof, and joined always by Judge Harry Edwards and Professor Skip Gates and, on many occasions, by David Wilkins or Ken Bacon. I think we managed to solve every world problem during our conversations, but, surprisingly, when we returned to the shore, we learned that our great ideas on the boat had not changed a single thing in the country.
We had great conversations, caught many fish, told innumerable lies but as they say, “What goes on the boat, stays on the boat.”
I remember Skip Gates always grabbing a pole thinking he had caught the real great giant Moby Dick; then in fact, we found out he had no caught a striped bass, but simply a pesky blue fish. But then, Judge Harry Edwards would grab the pole and catch a 30-pound striped bass and proclaim himself King for the Day.
You and I would just calmly praise our brethren. Wait for them to pass us the poles and quietly wait for the next fish. You would not shout, but then pull in a 40-pound striped bass. And look at the fellows and say, “Ha, ha, ha, haaa, now that’s a fish!” [LAUGHTER] We would catch many fish and release them each day and keep two for our family, friends and even strangers. It was our way of bonding, thinking about the joys of the past and anticipation of the future.
On our last trip, in August of last year, we had a great day; went as we do every year to Vernon Jordan’s house and enjoyed fried chicken, shrimp and our favorite beverage. And then we talked and told a lot of lies, particularly Vernon. I promise you, John, on our trip this August Judge Edwards, Professor Gates and I will release the first 40-pound striped bass that we catch. That one is yours. And it will be our honor to release that fish back to the ocean in memory of you.
When Pam and I hosted Barack Obama this past August on the Vineyard, you and Gay came and many others came, and you were quite candid with him about the pressing needs of the poor, the unemployed and the undereducated. John, he heard you. And as I say good-bye again, I want to tell you that your life’s work reminds me of the great apostle Paul. Criticized, jailed, and all too often punished. But like him, you can say the following in summing up your amazing life, John. You can say, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course, but I have kept the faith.” Yes, you have, John, and we praise you for it again and again, my friend. [APPLAUSE]
JANETTE PAYTON OLIVER: Good afternoon. Oh, I know you can do better than that. People have said, “Good afternoon before.”
AUDIENCE: Good afternoon!
JANETTE PAYTON OLIVER: This is about my brother, our brother. John was born and raised in Los Angeles, California – Yes, he was – to John and Ina Payton. He was part Payton and part Smith and he was their first-born son. Never to forget that.
Daddy was a very sharp businessman and self-proclaimed race man. I know people don’t use that term anymore. Daddy loved history and the art of the deal.
Our mother was a classy Spellman graduate.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Oh hoo!
JANETTE PAYTON OLIVER: Yes. And I have to tell you that from both of our parents, we learned a great deal, but it was our mother, Ina May Smith, who had the greatest impact on John and I and Susan. She was tremendous and it’s from her that we learned self-respect, self-confidence, compassion, the beauty of art, music and most importantly our obligation to always respect the dignity of others regardless of class, color or difference. [SIGHS]
The political conversation in our family was revolving constantly around the politics of race and justice. As children we knew who were and we knew what that meant. We learned that any privileges of class carried with them a responsibility to others. Mommy loathed pride. She loathed arrogance. She loathed folks who took their privilege as a right to rule over others. And with a personal style, both elegant and fierce, she drove home her lessons to great effect.
Got to tell you a Mommy story. Didn’t write it down, but got to tell it to you anyway.
We lived in a very multiracial neighborhood — which meant we were the only black family. [LAUGHTER] Most of the other families with children — which meant from a child’s perspective most of the other families — were Japanese. And we had one white family who lived up on the corner, and they were the welfare family. And my mother made sure that we always played with [their children] with respect. You know, that we never like did the whole thing about we’re better than you are, which I find curious that our first experiences as children with disadvantage involved white people.
One Thanksgiving — and I have to tell you, she thought of creative lessons, her lesson plans were outrageous. [SIGHS] And she did not just to prove a point, but because it was important to her that she demonstrate to us, and require of us, compassion. It was not a joke for her. It was what she expected her children to be.
Thanksgiving: my mother who apparently had made arrangements earlier, leaves the house, and returns with two very elderly white people. Very old. [My mother] was very fair skinned. I’m sure the nursing home and these two folks assumed she was white, until they walked into the house, where John and I were given the task of greeting them and taking care of them, respectfully, compassionately and with great grace so that they enjoyed their stay in our home with, of course, most other people looking not at all white.
They never said a word. But they kind of warmed up comfortably by the end of the time they left. They were smiling and I’m not sure what they ever took back to the nursing home in terms of a story. But I have to tell you, years after my mother died, I wanted to ask her, “How did you think of that? Where did that come from?”
I know all of those stories of our mother’s lessons and expectations resonated with us through our lives and you saw it with John as he grew and changed from an awkward young man to a magnificent human being. And yes, he was born brilliant [LAUGHTER] and independent-minded. As a boy he spent hours examining pond scum from our neighbor’s yard. Japanese neighbors; Japanese koi pond. Staining his slides and carefully cataloging each new discovery. Science was his primary love.
Throughout his childhood and all of his teenage years, he questioned everything. He fell in love with the LA Public Library. And he felt it important to share his discovered truths as he found them, like the time when we were both really small and we’d stayed up late to see Santa bring the gifts. And we sat up at the top of the stairs waiting for Santa only to see our father bringing the gifts from one room into the living room where the Christmas tree was. We were both rather surprised to put it mildly. And I’m, like, going up to my brother and I’m saying, “What?” And he thought about it and he thought about it and he announced, “Janette, there is no Santa Claus.” [LAUGHTER]
I wasn’t exactly immediately convinced of this because it seemed obvious to me that there must be one somewhere. And John pondered and he thought awhile and he laid out a carefully planned rational case for why there was no Santa. There had never been a Santa. It had always been our parents. He wanted me to not suffer a fantasy or be misled by such a clear falsehood in life.
Yet, for all of John’s academic geekiness, he was also a boy who loved to hang with his friends. He played hard and reveled in the camaraderie of a very multiracial, class-diverse group of pals. And as a friend of John’s, you received unshakable loyalty and appreciation. He displayed an amazing capacity to ignore any personal shortcomings. If you were his friend, you were his friend, period. And yes, John, always had a remarkable wit, a fabulous sense of humor and the ability to cut to the core of all things absurd.
He discovered sarcasm early [LAUGHTER] and used it often. [MORE LAUGHTER] He was sarcastic, engaging and incredibly entertaining.
John was not just a good brother, he was a terrific one. 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. We could discuss things large and small, taking advantage of his razor-sharp intellect, unique perspective and remarkable experience. No one has ever made me laugh harder or helped me to think more clearly. His laughter was a part of our lives, all of our lives. As his sisters’ brother, cousin, nieces, nephews, we face a world quite honestly we never expected — a world without the constancy of John. We now find ourselves struggling with our grief and the reality of this profound and still unimaginable loss. We will heal from this, we know that. But we’re never going to get over it.
We are proud and grateful for having had the privilege of John as our brother, as our cousin, and as our friend, and uncle. Oh, John, we will let you go. Know that we have always and will always love you. Go in peace, my beloved brother. Go with God. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]
Reverend Nolan A. Williams: In speaking with Ms. Gay McDougall about music for this ceremony, there were two things that were really important. One was that the messages of the pieces would be connected with the message of Mr. Payton’s life. The other that this would be a celebration. And so we end fittingly with the joyous song, Down by the Riverside.
Reverend Nolan Williams & the Voices of Inspiration: Down by the Riverside]
Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. is Senior Managing Director of Lazard Freres & Co., LLC, Senior Counsel of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP, and a Member of the Board of Directors of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.