John Payton’s Life as a Civil Rights Champion and Mentor

John Payton’s Life as a Civil Rights Champion and Mentor

John Payton, the late president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, had a career as a champion of the marginalized in America.

Published March 27, 2012

(Photo: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

To get a sense of the passionate commitment of John Payton to the cause of civil rights, one need only look at how he spent the last years of his life.  

At an age when many people of comfortable means might opt for a life of leisure and a decidedly comfortable pace, Payton was instead not just immersed in the battle for civil rights as one of its champions, but also in his role as a mentor to the coming generations of lawyers to defend the rights of the marginalized in America.

Payton’s was a brilliant career that focused on doing the work that produces lasting change, long after the high-profile protest marches and rallies have ended.

He was the sixth president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund since it separated from the venerable civil rights organization in 1940, having assumed that position in 2008. He was also the man at the helm of several significant victories before the Supreme Court before his death last week at the age of 65.

Payton was the lead attorney for a group of Black aspiring firefighters in Lewis v. City of Chicago, a discrimination suit against the city of Chicago. Arguing before the Supreme Court, he said the score on the department’s writing examination had a disparate impact on African-American applicants who were otherwise qualified, a point with which the city agreed.

In court proceedings, the city argued that the discrimination charge was not filed until after a statute of limitations had expired, which was upheld by lower courts. However, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the ruling of the lower court.

It was but one of a string of victories that were attributed to the guidance of Payton. He was, as President Obama said, “a true champion of equality,” who had “helped protect civil rights in the classroom and at the ballot box.”

The Harvard-educated lawyer had a captivating career that veered from private and public work in the field of law. But in each step along the way, he always kept at the forefront his desire for equality for Americans, particularly those who had been denied it.

He worked for the Washington law firm of Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr before taking leave to serve as corporation counsel for the District of Columbia. He monitored a presidential election in South Africa and turned down a nomination from President Clinton to be the assistant attorney general for civil rights after the congressional wrangling became too much.

“He went in and out of government but always had hands in civil rights issues,” said Debra Lee, BET Networks chairman and chief executive. “He was one of those people always doing the right thing and using the law to achieve social justice."


Lee said they first became friends at Harvard Law School. “Even at that point, he had already distinguished himself as a great legal scholar,” she said.  “He was really smart, committed and a role model for me.”

Payton was known for a sharp intellect, an infectious laugh and an unusual sense of comfort and self-assuredness when dealing with some of the most powerful Americans.

“A lot has been said about his service in the courtroom for equality and racial justice,” said Jacqueline A. Berrien, who chairs the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and is a former associate director and counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “I think he fully rose to the challenge of making that work real, vibrant and relevant.”

Berrien added, “He was generous in his time, generous in sharing the things he had learned over the years. He inspired people.”

Payton was also well known for his unreserved pride in his wife, Gay McDougall, a renowned human rights activist who was named as the first United Nations independent expert on minority issues.

So much of the work of justice and civil rights is played out far from the media spotlight. Many of the gains of African-Americans in the last generation have been the result of painstaking work in courtrooms and strategy sessions among the great legal minds who are committed to justice.

In that realm, America has lost a champion and an inspiration to legions of civil rights lawyers whose work will undoubtedly continue the legacy of John Payton.

BET National News - Keep up-to-date with breaking news stories from around the nation, including headlines from the hip hop and entertainment world.

Written by Jonathan P. Hicks


Latest in news

Inauguration Day

January 20, 2021