By Raymond M. Brown, Esq. and Wanda M. Akin, Esq., Co-Founders of the International Justice Project
Last month, the world lost one of its great human and civil rights activists and leaders— Democratic Representative Donald M. Payne of New Jersey—due to complications from colon cancer. We deeply mourn the loss of this great man, who passionately advocated for the end of violence in Darfur, and we would like to dedicate this post to his memory and honor.
The Paynes (Donald and William in particular) were long known as stalwarts of Democratic politics in Newark and Essex County. Donald, through his work with the YMCA, built an early reputation as a man with a vision of how Americans were part of the larger world community.
I first came to know them in 1976. I arrived at Brown & Brown, where I practiced with my father, to see Donald and Bill coming out of his office. On their way out, Bill gave me a cynical smile and said, “I guess I will be seeing you soon.” I continued into my dad’s office where he informed me that he had made an arrangement in which I would be Campaign Coordinator for Donald’s upcoming campaign to be the first County Executive in Essex County (I felt somewhat like a ballplayer that had been traded!).
Although the title “coordinator” sounds fancy, in fact it consisted of crawling around on the floor of Donald’s Headquarters with Bill and other volunteers looking at maps of the county, arranging fundraisers, dickering with printers for handbills and flyers, sitting in on negotiations about who was supporting whom and trying to raise funds. Even though Donald lost that race, I always think of it as the platform for his capture of the 10th Congressional District.
During that campaign, two things struck me as quite interesting: One was getting an insight into the complex and intriguing world of politics in Newark’s South Ward. The other was Donald’s insight into how to balance concern for the local issues that are critical to voters with the obligation to encourage them to think about the impact on our lives and developments elsewhere in the world. We continued that conversation with almost every encounter over the next four decades.
When Donald died, I thought immediately of an experience I had in Uganda in 2002. I was there because of a series of meetings and conferences about the challenge facing millions of refugees and host governments in Africa (Uganda was known as having a “cocktail” of refugees—having given asylum to folks fleeing armed conflict in the Congo, Sudan, Rwanda and throughout the Great Lakes Region). At one point during a meeting, I was having a conversation with Norbert Mao, a member of the Ugandan Parliament, President of the Ugandan Democratic Party, and in 2011, an unsuccessful challenger to President Musveni (Some may recognize Mao as the first face in the second Kony 2012 video from Invisible Children).
Mao and I talked for a long time and I never told him I was from New Jersey. Eventually the conversation wandered from refugees to politics, and I asked him which political figures he most admired in the world. He immediately answered, “JFK and Donald Payne of New Jersey.” When I asked him why, he said that Donald was the political figure he had met with the best grasp of the relationship between American power and influence and developments around the world, particularly in Africa. When I later told this story to Donald, he just chuckled.
In the early days of this century, Wanda and I became involved in representing Darfur victims at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and then, became connected to the Darfur Rehabilitation Project (DRP), and we even built our own nonprofit, the International Justice Project, to expand our efforts at transitional justice for Darfurians. We were not surprised that Representative Payne was one of the most vocal advocates in the struggle to end violence and suffering in the Sudan.
His dedication to the Sudan began almost twenty years ago when he first visited Nimule, a small town near the Ugandan border, which was the frontline in the struggle between the North and South during the civil war. He monitored the situation in Darfur closely from the very beginning, visiting dozens of refugee camps and pressuring Congress to take steps towards ending violence in the region. In 2009, he started the Darfur Fast for Life Campaign in an effort to raise awareness on Capitol Hill of the ongoing crisis in Darfur. He worked closely with both the Bush and Obama Administrations in making the Sudan, and more specifically the situation in Darfur, a real priority for American foreign policy.
Following the issuance of a warrant of arrest for Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al Bashir, Representative Payne stated, “Denying justice and condoning impunity for the scant hope of peace is no peace at all. There can never be true democracy or lasting peace without holding the feet of those responsible to the fire. The millions of Darfuris who have been adversely affected by Bashir’s puppeteering deserve justice.” His unwavering dedication to ending impunity and his tenacity for fighting for what he believed was right will continue to serve as an inspiration for all, renewing the drive to bring those persons responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes to justice once and for all.
Representative Payne became the first African American to be elected to Congress from the state of New Jersey in 1988. He represented New Jersey’s 10th District for 12 terms, serving as a beacon of hope for those who were oftentimes facing the most difficult of situations. He was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus from 1995 to 2007, and was one of only two members elected by President Bush in 2003 to serve as a Congressional delegate to the United Nations. He was also a senior member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce where he strived to improve the educational system of his district while fighting for fair wages for all.
As Wanda and I continue to fight for the end of impunity and for justice and equality for the world’s most marginalized and victimized populations, we will remember Representative Payne, his dedication, and his commitment. He serves as an example and source of inspiration for us and will be truly missed. We (and the IJP) want to add our names to the growing list of people and organizations that wish to keep his memory alive.
Photo Credit: Blanche Foster, Acting Director, Darfur Rehabilitation Project