President Obama led the nation in mourning the passing of John Payton, a giant within the civil rights legal community.
Payton, who was the sixth president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, died in the late evening hours March 22. He was 65.
“Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of our dear friend John Payton,” the president said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to John’s family, the many students he taught, and those who love him.”
According to the LDF website, Payton’s lifelong commitment was “to be an advocate for justice, equality and a true democracy for everyone.”
The following expressions have been received reflecting the deep loss, respect and appreciation for the immense contributions John Payton has made in the struggle for improving civil rights for the African American community, and the international communities where civil rights have and continue to be an issue.
“John Payton was one of the greatest civil rights lawyers our nation has ever had and our world has ever known,” NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement. “From defending affirmative action to fighting mass incarcerations to protecting voting rights, John defended civil rights gains and won civil rights victories. He was a dear friend, a valued counselor, and a leader of leaders. The entire NAACP family is deeply saddened by his sudden passing. We will miss him. We will honor his memory by fighting for justice as he did – with passion, precision, and perseverance in the face of great odds.”
As head of the LDF, he secured “critical victories” in the areas of voting rights (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder) and employment discrimination (Lewis v. the City of Chicago), according to the organization. As a partner with the Washington, D.C. firm of Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr, Payton was the lead counsel for the University of Michigan in successfully defending the use of race in the admissions process at its undergraduate college and at its law school.
For these and other victories, the National Law Journal named John Payton one of the most influential civil rights attorneys of the last decade, and the Washington D.C. Bar Association awarded him the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit.
“A true champion of equality, he helped protect civil rights in the classroom and at the ballot box,” President Obama said. “The legal community has lost a legend, while we mourn John’s passing, we will never forget his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.”