Remembering John Payton

March 23, 2012

by Nicole Flatow

The country lost a civil rights giant, with the passing of president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, John A. Payton. He died suddenly on Thursday at Johns Hopkins University Hospital after a brief illness, The Root reports.

Payton led LDF in several major Supreme Court victories, including Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, which rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Lewis v. City of Chicago, a major employment discrimination victory, according to a statement from LDF.

The statement adds:

Widely considered one of the country's most skilled members of the Supreme Court bar, John Payton's enduring legacy will be his commitment to a principle articulated by LDF's founder, Charles Hamilton Houston. "What I am more concerned about," Houston said, "is that the Negro shall not be content simply with demanding an equal share in the existing system. It seems to me that his historical challenge is to make sure that the system [that] shall survive in the United States of America shall be a system which guarantees justice and freedom for everyone."

LDF's work will go on, in just the way that John would have wanted.

President Obama said today in a statement:

Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of our dear friend John Payton. As president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, John led the organization's involvement in five Supreme Court cases.

A true champion of equality, he helped protect civil rights in the classroom and at the ballot box. The legal community has lost a legend, and while we mourn John's passing, we will never forget his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.

Payton was a voice for the civil rights community, and a leading constitutional thinker. During a 2009 American Constitution Society event at the National Press Club on “The Road from Lincoln to Obama,” Payton discussed the importance of shedding our racist history as we move forward with our constitutional jurisprudence.

“I would say Reconstruction didn’t fail. It was destroyed,” he said.

He continued:

Thurgood Marshall, on the bicentennial of the Constitution, gave a speech that turns into a law review piece and it contains this quote: “While the Union survived the Civil War, the Constitution did not. In its place arose a new more promising basis for justice and equality: the Fourteenth Amendment.” The Fourteenth Amendment contains the equal protection clause; it contains the privileges and immunities clause; it contains the clause that says everyone born in the U.S. is a citizen of the United States.

Those were intended to be revolutionary aspects of our government, and when he says the Union survived but the Constitution didn’t, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were intended to do a revolution to do how we actually exist as a democracy.

… Unfortunately, the first couple of decades afterwards were filled with people who were running away from the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment instead of running towards it. And we now have a chance I’d say to run towards the promise of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and I think we ought to take maximum opportunity to actually do this, right now.

Watch video of Payton here, and watch video of the full event here.