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In Memoriam: John Payton

Intercollegiate Baseball
John Payton

Memorial Information at the Claremont Colleges

Please join us in celebrating the life of John Payton '73, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), and member of the Pomona College Board of Trustees.

April 12, 2012 - 2 p.m.

McAlister Center for Religious Activities (919 N. Columbia Ave.)

Reception immediately following in the Honnold Library Founders Room (north entrance). For more information, contact Clay Peters

A Letter from President Oxtoby

It is with great sorrow that I write to let you know that Trustee John Payton, Class of 1973, died this afternoon. This is a tremendous loss for all who knew him, as well as for Pomona College and for the country.

Payton, who was appointed to the Pomona College Board of Trustees in 2005, was the current President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and a tireless advocate for justice, equality, and opportunity. A renowned civil rights attorney, he served as lead counsel for the University of Michigan in the 2003 landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases concerning diversity in higher education, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. In 2010, the National Law Journal named John to its list of “The Decade’s Most Influential Lawyers.”  The Washington (D.C.) Bar Association awarded him the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit.

A native of Los Angeles, Payton was born in 1946 and graduated from Pomona College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics. As a student, he was a founder of the Black Student Union and co-founder of the Black Studies Center. In addition, he was a member of the Nu Alpha Phi fraternity and participated in intramural sports. A Pomona College Scholar, he also received the prestigious Watson Fellowship for study in West Africa.

After graduating from Pomona, Payton earned his law degree, cum laude, from Harvard Law School and clerked for U.S. District Judge Cecil F. Poole, Northern District of California. Prior to his appointment to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 2008, Payton was a partner with the firm Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering in Washington, D.C. From 1991 to 1994, he took a leave from the firm to serve as the Corporation Counsel for the District of Columbia. He was a past president of the District of Columbia Bar Association and served in leadership roles with a number of civil and human rights organizations, including in the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law and the Free South Africa movement.

Payton was an enduring friend to Pomona. He was currently serving as vice chair of the Board of Trustees Academic Affairs Committee and co-chair of the Pomona College Campaign “Daring Minds.”  Pomona presented him with an honorary LL.D. (Doctor of Laws) degree in 2005, when he was a memorable and inspiring graduation speaker.

President Obama issued a statement tonight that said “Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of our dear friend John Payton. . . 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.”

Pomona and indeed the country have lost a valuable leader and one who was truly living up to President Blaisdell’s challenge: "They only are loyal to this college who, departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind." Our thoughts and prayers extend to his wife Gay McDougall, family, friends, and colleagues. As information becomes available about a memorial service, that information will be posted on Pomona’s web.

David Oxtoby
March 22, 2012

Media Tributes

New York Times

John Payton, Lawyer Who Fought for Civil Rights, Dies at 65

"John Payton, who as president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund guided it to several major victories before the Supreme Court, died on Thursday in Baltimore. He was 65 and lived in Washington…. Named president in 2008, Mr. Payton was the defense fund’s sixth leader since it became a separate entity from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1940. He had been active in the civil rights movement since his days at Pomona College in the 1960s."

Washington Post

John Payton, a lawyer who argued bias cases before Supreme Court, dies at 65

Mr. Payton’s appointment to the fund in 2008 capped a five-decade career devoted to the protection of minorities. During the early 1990s, he was the District’s corporation counsel, or chief legal officer. The position is now called the D.C. attorney general.
At his death, Mr. Payton was president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights legal organization.

National Law Journal

Legal community mourns passing of John Payton, a 'true champion of equality'

Payton "surely resides in the very first rank of civil rights lawyers of his generation," said former Solicitor General Seth Waxman, now at Wilmer, in a statement. "John was also a unique lawyer: at once a focused, hard-nosed litigator, a mentor, and a genuinely compassionate human being."

Black Entertainment Television

NAACP Legal Defense President John Payton Has Died

“John Payton was one of the greatest civil rights lawyers our nation has ever had and our world has ever known,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “From defending affirmative action to fighting mass incarcerations to protecting voting rights, John defended civil rights gains and won civil rights victories.”

The Washington Post

John A. Payton, of NAACP Legal Defense Fund dies

“Payton, the LDF's sixth president and director-counsel, leaves a gaping hole in the fight for civil rights.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Leadership Conference Mourns the Passing of John Payton, a “Warrior for Justice and Equality”

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued the following statement after the passing of John Payton, Esq., a longtime member of its Executive Committee and the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.:

“John Payton was a warrior for justice and equality. He was a lawyer’s lawyer and an insightful activist. John was comfortable in the courtroom, the board room, or the community setting – and was persuasive and effective wherever his analysis and skills were needed. He cherished his role as President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. He was arguably a 21st Century Thurgood Marshall. The highest compliment I could pay him as an advocate is that he could run with the foxes and he could run with the hounds. To say he will be sorely missed is an understatement of the highest order. We at The Leadership Conference have lost a dear friend and words alone cannot adequately express the true magnitude of this loss.”

NAACP Legal Defense Fund

John Payton In Memoriam

John Payton was “a tireless advocate for justice, equality, and opportunity…To the LDF staff and to a great many others, John was fearless – a guiding light, a brilliant advocate, a mentor and teacher who believed that American democracy thrives when it embraces all of our voices… 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.”

Personal Tributes

To submit your own personal tribute to John Payton, please email


I believe John Payton was an alum. He was a giant in the legal community in D.C. and will be missed by all the lawyers who have worked and learned from him. I represented the United States in several cases in the Supreme Court where John was on the same side. He was always brilliant, gracious, and most effective in getting his point across.

Teresa Kwong


I often think back on John Payton's keynote address to our class at commencement ceremonies in 2005. His speech, thoughtfully and eloquently, combined critical reflection on the hard realities of contemporary domestic and global relations with a challenge to us, as graduates, to locate, employ, and disseminate a vital optimism and will for change in the world around us. Rooted in the practical knowledge and experience of struggle and defeat as well as triumph, his call to act seemed simultaneously bold and manageable, inspirational and down-to-earth. The loss of John Payton amplifies this call--and the need to attend to it--for our class and all others.

Ian MacMillen '05


I received information regarding John Payton's death today.  My mind goes back to 1971 when John was working to increase the number of Black students in the colleges. I know John convinced Scripps College to accept a young, African American, first generation, excrutiatingly shy girl for admission.  My experience at Scripps changed my life and world view in so many ways. My experiences ranged from outstanding to painful and I learned from them all. I thank John for helping to open that door to Scripps. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family. America and the world has lost a great one.

Wanda Clay (Majors)
Scripps '75


With both of us named John, to me he was always just Payton; my best friend in college.  He and I were roommates at several times (once along with a third John--Crowley).  So I remember the person behind the famous lawyer: a really funny, friendly, wise and generous guy.  He was always a pleasure to be with, and incredible in the breadth of his knowledge.  And I remember, even after he became very prominent, he was always friendly and warm to the little guy-his regular server at Starbucks, the doorman at his apartment building.  Perhaps "great guy"  is a trite expression, but I can't think of a better description of Payton. I'll really miss him.

Shapard (aka John Shapard. Pomona '68).