Whether a student activist at Pomona College in the 1960s or as a civil rights advocate in his vocation of attorney, John Payton ’73 was passionate about equality and justice.
At the College, Payton was key in establishing the Black Student Union and the Intercollegiate Black Studies Center.
After Pomona, he went on to Harvard Law School, continuing his activism by working on behalf of the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee and with black protestors injured during desegregation efforts in Boston.
Following Harvard, he joined Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering and, as a junior lawyer, helped lay the groundwork for a successful Supreme Court appeal on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Payton’s advocacy for the disenfranchised continued throughout his career. As a lawyer for the Free South Africa Movement, he monitored the country’s first all-race elections in 1994. He successfully argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court, defending race-based admissions policies at the University of Michigan, fighting against illegal hiring practices in Chicago, and defeating a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
His career encompassed both private practice and government service. He was a partner at WilmerHale, corporation counsel for the District of Columbia, and director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In 2010, the National Law Journal named Payton to its list of the decade’s most influential lawyers.
As a Pomona board trustee, Payton was vice chair of the academic affairs committee and co-chair of Campaign Pomona: Daring Minds. In 2005, the College awarded him an honorary degree, and he delivered the keynote commencement address, challenging students to be courageous and committed.
In 2017, The Pomona College Board of Trustees endowed the John A. Payton ’73 Distinguished Lectureship in memory of John Payton's life and influential career, and in honor of David W. Oxtoby, ninth president of Pomona College.