Friends and colleagues of John Payton PO ’73, who died last month, gathered at McAllister Center Thursday afternoon to honor his life and accomplishments. A prominent civil rights attorney and advocate for racial justice, Payton founded Claremont’s Black Student Union (BSU) and Black Studies Center.
Payton died March 22 due to undetermined causes. He was 65.
Officiated by Reverend Onetta Brooks and punctuated with live songs by local musician Erwynnda Vessup, the service brought together many of Payton’s former classmates and many others who had been affected by his work.
Speaking at the service, Franklin Peters PO ’71 recalled a time when only 33 of the 5,000 students at the Claremont Colleges were black. Peters and Payton, both students at the time, helped found the Black Student Union and campaigned for increased admittance of black students.
“We envisioned integrating the Claremont community to reflect the world at large,” Peters said.
The BSU petitioned for the colleges to increase the number of black students to ten percent of the total student body.
“They said, ‘No, no, there are not even that many qualified students in all of Los Angeles,’” Peters said. In response, Peters, Payton and other members of the BSU set up summer programs for students accepted into the colleges to prepare them for the rigor ahead.
Barbara Arnwine SC ’73 was one of the students drawn to the colleges through Payton’s efforts.
“The Claremont Colleges would not be what they are today had John Payton not fought to integrate the colleges, to increase the number of African-American students,” said Arnwine in a video address to the gathering. As a fellow civil rights attorney, Arnwine had a professional relationship with Payton that continued long after graduation from Pomona.
“John Payton was a remarkable person. In fact, John was a man of genius,” Arnwine said. “How do you talk about someone who has had such a great impact not only on our nation, but on the entire globe? How do you talk about someone who has given so much of his time and his life to advancing civil rights, to bettering our nation and our society for others?”
Payton’s lifelong friend Clark Curtis Farmer also characterized him as intellectual and inspiring.
“He was just extremely intelligent, very bright,” said Farmer, recalling a function he attended with Payton where he went head-to-head with a congressman.
Valerie Coachman Moore PO ’75 remembered John’s leadership of black students at the colleges.
“John brought many of us together in the early ’70s, and he has again pulled us together today. Few others could do that,” said Moore in her speech at the service.
She recalled reminiscing with Arnwine upon learning of Payton’s death.
“[These memories] were our way of making sense of John’s untimely death and why he, who’d done so much for our nation and our world, he who had so much more to do, was now gone,” Moore said.
Lavetta Williams PZ ’72 characterized Payton as a campus celebrity.
“He’d always stop, and listen, and talk with you, and engage. He had a gift of being well-liked,” Williams said. “You felt better after you talked with him. He was good-looking too.”
Professor Emeritus Agnes Moreland Jackson taught Payton black literature at Pitzer College.
“We all know that many lives were enriched by John’s being in our world. His multifaceted, huge legacy to us blacks in Claremont includes ourselves,” said Jackson, speaking to the crowd. “We are part of John’s legacy—the students, faculty and alumni who are black. Our imperfect world is the reality that John confronted, and labored all of his adult life to improve.”