NAACP Legal Defense Head Payton Dies at Age 65

It was a sad day on Friday with news of the death of John Payton, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. He was just 65. Payton was a member of our most recent Lawdragon 500 guide. A number of national publications ran obituaries on Saturday, including the Washington Post, which said in its article that Payton suffered complications from multiple myeloma.

Among his many cases, Payton represented the University of Michigan in the Gratz v. Bollinger affirmative action case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He led the defense fund to victory in Lewis v. City of Chicago, another high court case which involved a challenge to an applicant test for firefighters in Chicago. President Obama praised him for his “courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.” He had worked at WilmerHale before joining the fund in 2008. The firm said in a release:

John was a giant. Perhaps the greatest civil rights lawyer of his generation, his keen intellect, piercing intensity, and unmistakable voice made him a powerful force in any setting. His passion for justice served as an inspiration for generations of lawyers. He was gentle, with a playful—even impish—sense of humor, and had an irrepressible enthusiasm for books, anything electronic, and whatever was his latest passion.

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