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Civil Rights Community Mourns the Loss of John Payton

Marc H. Morial | 4/5/2012, 2:36 p.m.

"Diverse democracies depend on diverse people who know and respect each other." - John Payton

Over the past century, the most powerful force behind America's on-going struggle for equality has been an outstanding group of civil rights attorneys. Imagine where we would be today without lawyers like Charles Hamilton Houston - "the man who killed Jim Crow" -- or his protege, Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who in 1940 founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF). For over 70 years, LDF has been America's first and foremost civil and human rights law firm. During that time, the organization has had just six leaders: Thurgood Marshall, Jack Greenberg, Julius Chambers, Elaine Jones, Ted Shaw and the LDF's sixth president and director-counsel, John Payton who passed away last week at the age of 65.

Whether he was defending affirmative action before the United States Supreme Court or leading the fight to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, John Payton was one of the most brilliant and fearless civil rights champions of our generation. A graduate of Pomona College and Harvard Law School, Payton's commitment to civil rights led him from a career at WilmerHale, one of Washington, D.C.'s most prestigious law firms, to his leadership of LDF beginning in 2008. It was at WilmerHale that Payton laid the foundation as a great civil rights attorney.

According to a statement on the firm's website, "Beginning in 1997, he led the firm's representation of the University of Michigan--from the district court through the Supreme Court--in the Gratz and Grutter cases, which hold that public institutions of higher education may consider race as a factor in admissions in order to achieve the educational benefits that flow from having a racially-diverse student body."

Payton continued his exemplary defense of civil rights at LDF where, in 2010, he won a Supreme Court employment discrimination case on behalf of a group of Chicago African-American fire fighters. He also won a Supreme Court victory in Northwest Austin v. Holder, which upheld the constitutionality of a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On a personal note, John Payton was a dear friend and colleague. I had the pleasure of working closely with him on a number of initiatives, including a new effort just underway to develop a collective voice on Education among civil rights leaders. He also recently arranged for the National Urban League to sign onto an amicus brief on the Health Care case that will be argued before the Supreme Court beginning this week.

I admired John's sharp intellect and enjoyed the lively talks we had about the law and Supreme Court strategy. He was a seasoned, thoughtful litigator who earned a place alongside great civil rights lawyers like Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall. President Obama called Payton "A true champion of equality who helped protect civil rights in the classroom and at the ballot box." I will miss his friendship, his partnership and his humanity. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Gay McDougall, and his wide circle of family and friends.

Marc H. Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.