I’m incredibly saddened by the passing of John A. Payton, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Our nation has lost a brilliant warrior for justice, and I’ve lost a dear friend and colleague in the movement.
I first had the pleasure to meet John during the Clinton era. What I most remember about him is his great respect for humanity, his intensity in using the law to achieve justice and his unparalleled love for his wife.
What the public will remember of him is that he was a superb litigator who successfully devised a strategy in two of the most difficult affirmative action cases of our time, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, the latter in which the Supreme Court upheld race-conscious admissions in higher education in 2003. Now that the Supreme Court is considering another affirmative action challenge so ominously soon after the Bollinger cases in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, John’s legal guidance will be sorely missed.
John volunteered his time to argue many civil rights cases while he was a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm WilmerHale. He left a comfortable perch as a partner there to take on the biggest, most difficult and rewarding challenge of his career — becoming the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the historic litigation leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He brightened when he talked about the chance to give back and use his prodigious legal skills full-time for the sake of equal justice under the law.
John was also an important advisor to the White House and a close and effective advisor and friend to Attorney General Eric Holder. He was a great collaborator of the ACLU and helped educate the wider civil rights and civil liberties community about the lurking threats to hard-fought civil right gains.
But the measure of a man is not just his resumé. John was a bracing critic when he didn’t agree with the characterization of a civil rights challenge. But beneath his very serious public demeanor and sometimes stern tone, he was a man who could roar with laughter at a funny joke and who could mischievously tease his friends.
On the many times I saw him with his brilliant, world-renowned human rights activist wife, Gay McDougall, I saw the twinkle in his light eyes of pride and admiration for his dynamic spouse. Over the years they hosted numerous parties on behalf of varying social causes, inviting foreign and domestic dignitaries to their elegant D.C. home so that they could meet with American nonprofit leaders. Gay was instrumental to John’s success at the NAACP, lifting up his leadership in ways large and small.
In 2009, when I was in Geneva for a world forum on minority political rights that Gay organized for the United Nations, I saw another dimension to John — that of a supportive spouse. He used his computer to translate into English articles about Gay’s achievements so that we could appreciate her impact.
Two years ago, John, Gay, several civil rights leaders and I attended a small, but influential conference in Bellagio, Italy. Interspersed with a robust conversation about the confluence of civil rights and human rights, John pulled out a deck of cards and he proceeded to trash-talk and whip our butts in ruthless games of bid whist, well into the wee hours of the night.
John’s rapier-sharp intellect is a tragic loss for us all. But his courtly decency, his love of life, his example as a faithful husband who relished being married to a successful woman, his piercing light eyes that analyzed your every word and gesture, and his robust laughter will forever be markers of a multidimensional man who will be greatly missed.
Laura W. Murphy is director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office.