One year ago this Friday the LDF family lost our esteemed President and Director-Counsel John Payton. John’s early death was not only a loss for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, it was a loss for all who seek justice, are committed to the cause of civil and human rights, and struggle to make our democracy live up to its promises of fairness and equality for all. As President Barrack Obama noted at the time of his death, John was a “true champion of equality.”
During his tenure as LDF’s 6th leader, John guided us to critical 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. As importantly, he showed the LDF staff, and a great many others, what it meant to be an effective warrior for justice. John was fearless – a guiding light, a brilliant advocate, a mentor and teacher who believed that American democracy thrives when it embraces all its people.
Debo Adegbile, who served as Associate Director-Counsel, Director of Litigation, during John’s tenure at LDF, captured John’s presence as a leader when he wrote that John “had an infectious optimism and confidence that made all good things not simply possible but probable.” John had the unique combination of razor-sharp intellect, commitment to rigor – tempered by the ability to reflect and recalibrate, passion for history, deep curiosity, ability to see around corners, and the aforementioned confidence and optimism that distinguished him as an advocate and leader.
A native of Los Angeles and graduate of Pomona College and Harvard Law School, John forged a brilliant career as a corporate attorney at the firm of Wilmer Hale before coming to LDF. At Wilmer he headed the firm’s Litigation Department, but also always exercised a deep commitment to public service through his extensive pro bono work. John took leave from Wilmer during the early 1990s to serve as the Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia. He was president of the District of Columbia Bar from 2001 to 2002, a member of the American Law Institute, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and a Master in the Edward Coke Appellate Inn of Court. He was also affiliated with a number of civil rights and human rights organizations.
In the year since his death we have missed John dearly, but we have continued to fight the good fight. In Fisher v. UT Austin we are defending efforts to further diversity in higher education made possible by John’s victory in the 2003 University of Michigan cases. And in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder we are again standing up to protect the core of the Voting Rights Act. As we engage in these, and many other struggles, we are inspired by John’s example, challenged to live up to the standards he set, and imbued with his infectious optimism and confidence that justice shall prevail.
Hear the audio of John Payton’s 2003 oral argument to the Supreme Court in Gratz v. University of Michigan.
Read LDF Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill’s March 2012 tribute to John Payton in The Root.