From Claremont to the Supreme Court: John Payton’s PO ’73 search for knowledge and justice

A young John Payton PO ’73, who championed the rights of Black students at the Claremont Colleges. (Courtesy: Pomona College)

Well before he was tackling some of the most monumental affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court, John Payton PO ’73 was advocating for the rights of Black students at the 5Cs. 

Highly acclaimed for his contributions to civil rights law, the late Pomona College alumnus is known for his time as the lead counsel for the University of Michigan in two landmark Supreme Court cases regarding protections for affirmative action in higher education.

Payton also succeeded former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, among a few others, in leading the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he defended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when it was brought back to the highest court in 2008/9.

While every phase of his life was dedicated to furthering social justice, Payton’s efforts seemed to circle back to the Claremont community. 

No matter the role he played at Pomona, whether it be as student, admissions recruiter, trustee or board member, the many stages of Payton’s life were dedicated to improving the institutions students benefit from today at the 5Cs.

When Payton settled into Claremont on the eve of the 1965 Watts Rebellion in nearby Los Angeles, the background that set the scene for Payton’s early undergraduate years was one consumed by what Brenda Jones PO ’73 described as an “extremely political time.”

According to Jones, who was briefly married to Payton following graduation, he “came to Pomona [as] just a smart kid,” but by the time he graduated, he had become “more politicized.”

Many of Payton’s advocacy efforts in Claremont stemmed from his involvement in the BSU and the collective effort to establish the Black Studies Center. The skills he learned in Claremont, Jones added, assisted Payton in his endeavors as civil rights attorney in the years that followed. 

Although Payton worked with several other BSU members along the way, Danny Wilks PO ’71 was a peer who ended up becoming a lifelong friend.

William Taylor PO ’73, who was involved with the BSU himself, remembered fond memories from the dynamic duo’s time at Pomona.

“I remember Danny and John as sort of a yin and yang when it came to the BSU activities. Danny was more of a fiery influence and John was the voice of reason,” Taylor told TSL, remembering Payton’s composed demeanor fondly. 

“John Payton was [a] quieter, more responsible type of person,” and served as the grounding presence between the two, Taylor said. “One of my good memories of him is that I was an avid tropical fish collector. When I went on vacation, John would take care of my fish because I felt like he was the only person responsible enough to take care of them.”

Even as a student, Payton was already giving back to Claremont. As a recruiter for Black student admissions, Payton’s efforts helped usher in a surge of Black student enrollment, bringing in record numbers that had not yet been seen. 

Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran PO ’69, one of his BSU contemporaries who worked alongside him in Black student admissions, said that his thirst for knowledge was “probably part of why the work we did [as a BSU chapter] was so good.”

When responding to the hurdles the BSU faced in establishing the BSC, Wilson-Oyelaran said, Payton “brought a capacity to conceptualize that it made it very difficult for faculty who come with all their capacity for criticism to tear apart.”

Wilson-Oyelaran also remembered Payton as “an intellectual giant.”

“He could not figure out what to major in, so he majored in almost everything which was part of what made him such an incredible attorney,” Wilson-Oyelaran said. “… He was so liberally educated in the very sense of the word. He was going to major in physics, then he was going to major in mathematics. And then I think his thesis was on the Harlem Renaissance.”

Payton ultimately settled on a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and eventually graduated from Pomona in 1973, after several years of studying off and on through advocacy and admissions work and battling health issues. He went on to earn a Harvard law degree cum laude before becoming a partner with WilmerHale Washington, DC.

By the time he counseled Michigan in the monumental affirmative action case, Payton already had gathered a whole array of accolades winning past civil rights cases. 

To name a few, Payton had significant leadership roles assisting the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Southern Africa Legal Support, Leal Education Production and the Free South Africa movement, of which he served as chief counsel.

Kern Reese PO ’74 spoke highly of Payton as a leader and a friend. 

“John was well liked by everybody. I think the only people who didn’t like him were the people who would try to run schemes and games, because he had very little tolerance for that. He would tell the unvarnished truth … John was well respected universally, pretty much.” 

Reese remembered the dynamic nature of the time, a period where everybody “wanted to be engaged with something,” and that the campus witnessed everything from visits from The Black Panthers to demonstrations against the Vietnam war. 

“We spoke truth to power when we were there,” Valerie Coachman Moore PO ’74 said. “Speaking truth to power was really a galvanizing, invigorating experience, and we were all smart, intellectual people debating things all the time.”

“Speaking truth to power was really a galvanizing, invigorating experience, and we were all smart, intellectual people debating things all the time.”

Valerie Coachman Moore PO '75

Pomona politics professor Lorn Foster recalled a strong sense of wit and passion when remembering Payton.

“John had a really keen intellect. His mind was incredibly analytical. And he also was a really dynamic advocate. He could expound on a whole lot of different topics,” Foster said. “When I got to Claremont [in 1978], the Black population was about 300 out of 5,000,” but before Payton’s recruitment efforts commenced, Black student representation had been in the single-digits just 14 years earlier.

Following graduation in 1973, Payton was awarded the Watson fellowship which he used to spend a year abroad in West Africa before heading to Harvard Law School. 

Throughout and after law school, Payton took his advocacy to new levels. He worked in collaboration as a Harvard student with the American Indian Movement, and after graduation he worked as a lawyer for the Free South Africa Movement, helping oversee South Africa’s first all-race elections in 1994. 

During this time, Payton also worked as a lawyer for WilmerHale for a total of 27 years, representing milestone Supreme Court cases. Payton argued before the Supreme Court in Gratz v Bollinger (2003) that the University of Michigan’s use of racial preferences in the admissions process was a violation of the 14th Amendment. Payton also worked on a similar Supreme Court Case, Gruttinger v Bollinger

Payton later served as the sixth president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund beginning in 2008, where he aided in huge racial justice victories and oversaw involvement in five Supreme Court Cases. One of his most notable cases was Lewis v Chicago (2010), where he found the city of Chicago to have violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by discriminating against African Americans who applied for positions in the city’s fire department. 

“John was in his element, because intellectually he could function everywhere,” Reese said. “He was going quite well and he was still that same person. He had just gotten a little older but the conversation was the same, it was always on the higher intellectual plane.”

Payton made a visit back to Pomona in 2005 to deliver the commencement address, during which he encouraged the students to become advocates themselves, never straying from the values he embodied.

“There are huge issues before us today… Some of you are future leaders. All of you can make an impact,” he said. “It’s your turn. Make us proud.” 

Three years before he passed, Payton made another speech at Pomona at the dedication of the Draper Center for Community Partnerships, a current service at the 5Cs that implements much of the community work that Payton and his BSU contemporaries instigated during the sixties. 

In his speech, he outlined the legacy of U.S. civil rights law, one that his contributions have been recognized in defining, with the five cases he defended at the Supreme Court. He also called “community the key to democracy,” and called on students to extend the notion of community efforts beyond the confines of campus.

John Payton PO ’73 delivered Pomona College’s commencement address in 2005. (Courtesy: Pomona College)

Since 2017, Pomona has honored Payton through the annual John A. Payton 73 Distinguished Lectureship to pay homage to his contributions within and beyond his Pomona experience. 

While the sun set on Payton’s life at just 65, many of the institutions students benefit from today at the 5Cs can be credited to the efforts he launched as an undergrad with his fellow BSU members. 

He became a pivotal figure in upholding civil rights as an attorney, and left a remarkable impact on those that called him a friend or colleague. 

When he passed away from sudden illness in 2012, former President Barack Obama mourned the “passing of our dear friend,” calling Payton “a true champion of equality…[who] helped protect civil rights in the classroom and at the ballot box.”

Touching on how the “legal community [had] lost a legend,” with Payton’s passing, Obama added, “we will never forget his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.” 

Former classmates and faculty alike hosted an on-campus memorial service in his honor. 

Since so much of his work revolved around his community, Payton would not have wanted to be remembered as an “individual champion,” according to Coachman Moore. 

Rather, he’d want to be known for how “he represented the highest hopes and dreams that we all held for,” Coachman Moore said, “ultimately, for freedom, justice and equality, particularly. For all students, really, not just students of color, not just Black students, but for all of us. And that’s what’s important … [he] was a representation of a collective spirit and ethos.”

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