For someone who made history as his state’s first African-American to serve in Congress and developed an international reputation for his work in support of Africa, Donald Payne was a pretty unassuming man. He didn’t have the flash of a Charlie Rangel or the fire of a Maxine Waters, but he held himself with a quiet dignity that made you respect him even if you disagreed with him on an issue. It is what set Rep. Donald Payne apart and it is what many will remember him for when they reflect on his life and achievements.
This morning the 77 year-old Payne lost his battle with colon cancer and passed away in hospice care. The congressman had returned to New Jersey on Friday and was rushed to a hospital outside Newark as his condition worsened. Rep. Payne served the 10th congressional district in New Jersey for 23 years and at the time of his death was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the not-for-profit public policy research organization in the nation’s capital.
Donald Payne was a public servant; his life was dedicated to improving the welfare of others and bringing hope and prosperity to sub-Saharan Africa. A former public school teacher, Newark City Council member and Essex County Freeholder (elected official), Payne turned his attention to Congress as his city was undergoing a racial transformation. In 1988 he was elected to the House of Representatives to the district that had been served for many years by the legendary Rep. Peter Rodino, after two unsuccessful attempts to seek the seat in the past. As Rodino stepped aside, Donald Payne was the de facto next in line and went on to win re-election to Congress 11 times. He was prepared to run again in November and recently indicated his intention to seek another term.
In a city that often takes knocks for its gruff exterior, Donald Payne was a Newark bred gentleman. He was a city native and a proud one at that. He was a product of the city’s Barringer High School and was a graduate of Seton Hall University. His interest in Africa was cultivated when he served as the first African-American president of the National Council of YMCAs. Payne carried his love affair for Africa onto Capitol Hill and became a fierce champion of democracy and Black liberation on the continent. He was a champion for a free and democratic South Africa, a critic of the violence in Darfur and advocate for famine relief. It is perhaps poetic justice and a nod to Rep. Payne that the nation’s first African-American president has a clear and identifiable link to Africa.
In the days to come much will be said about Donald Payne’s record in Congress but I hope people will recall the man, the person. I should know. I sparred with him once, and fought hard, but he never took it personal and never allowed it to become contentious to the point where we were disagreeable to one another. In fact, I proudly took offense at his omission from an article in the state’s largest newspaper that considered possible gubernatorial candidates. One thing I do know is that Rep. Payne truly enjoyed serving the public and our state owes him a debt of gratitude.
I am hopeful that as we reflect on Rep. Donald Payne’s life he will be given the respect and honor that history tells us he deserves. Sadly, in my state, Blacks of notable achievement receive little recognition and often are cast aside even in our community. In a state that can claim Paul Robeson, E. Frederick Morrow, S. Howard Woodson, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., Wynona Lipman and many other civic giants, Black achievement in public service is hardly celebrated and mostly forgotten. It would be tragic if Rep. Payne was treated in the same manner.