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Memorial for John Payton '73, Trustee and Civil Rights Attorney, Set for April 12

John Payton

The College has created a personal tribute page for John Payton. You can send your thoughts and memories of him to communications@pomona.edu, and they will be posted there.

John Payton ‘73, a renowned civil rights attorney, the current president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), and member of the Pomona College Board of Trustees since 2005, died yesterday afternoon. He was 65.

A memorial for Payton will be held on Thursday, April 12, at 2 pm, in the Claremont College’s McAllister Center (919 N. Columbia, Claremont). A reception will follow in the Founder’s Room of Honnold Library.

In a letter to the College community, President David Oxtoby noted that, “This is a tremendous loss for all who knew him, as well as for Pomona College and for the country.” He was a tireless advocate for justice, equality and opportunity.

According to the NAACP LDF, Payton was among its most effective leaders. "During his tenure, he guided the organization to resounding legal victories, including Lewis v. City of Chicago, which vindicated the rights of over 6,000 applicants who sought to become firefighters in the city of Chicago, and Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, which turned back a challenge to the constitutionality of a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 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.”

President Barack Obama issued a statement last night that said, “Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of our dear friend John Payton. . . 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, prior to his appointment to the NAACP LDF, was perhaps most well-known for his role 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 wasborn 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. He moved to D.C. where he joined the firm that became Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, rising to partner. From 1991 to 1994, he took a leave from the firm to serve as the Corporation Counsel for the District of Columbia. In 1994, he served as an elections monitor for the first democratic elections in South Africa.

Payton 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, and a member of the American Law Institute, a fellow of the American Bar Foundation and a master in the Edward Coke Appellate Inn of Court.

For Pomona College, Payton was an enduring friend. 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.

In a message to the Pomona College community, President David Oxtoby noted that, “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.”