U.S. Congressman Donald M. Payne, described as a true and dedicated native son of Newark, New Jersey, and the first African-American elected to Congress from that state, has died. The news comes only weeks after Payne vowed to continue to represent his constituents and his country during his ongoing battle with colon cancer.
Payne’s political career was built on step-by-step challenges and on a solid foundation of hard-earned respect in the arena of Newark politics. At the same time, with steady success, he would climb the business ladder in his home state. Eventually harnessing a combination of the two, Payne would be elected to the U.S. Congress in 1988 and would rise through the ranks of politics, serving as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus from 1995 to 1997; one of his many achievements in a distinguished career that spanned decades. Payne did much to bring attention and influence to both African American and African affairs on a global scale.
Education was the first stepping stone for Payne, who started out as a teacher in the Newark Public Schools. His commitment to education and youth remained a life-long undertaking. One of the first of many indicators of this was his appointment as the first black president of the National Council of YMCAs. He went on to become Chairman of the World Y.M.C.A. Refugee and Rehabilitation Committee, forging his commitment as an African American to humanitarian and global causes, of which Payne was in a unique position to advance and support.
Payne called himself a “longtime advocate for human rights,” earning credential with his involvement in the civil rights movement. As the representative from New Jersey’s 10th District and as Chairman of the Subcommittee on African and Global Health on the Committee for Foreign Affairs, he stayed current on humanitarian issues.
Even as the seriousness of his illness was making national headlines, Payne spoke out, both globally and domestically, to express his concerns about activities that he flagged as ignoring recognized systems of civil rights and international justice. On the website, ! enough, Payne wrote, “The project to end genocide and crimes against humanity.” His message was a reminder to people that representatives, at the end of the day, side with constituents; “Members listen to constituents and will side with them over lobbyists if they assert themselves and hold their representatives accountable. Church groups and advocacy organizations can be particularly effective.”
His message could be direct and hard hitting, as was the case with Payne’s reaction to the New York Police Department, investigation of Muslins in Newark. Again, when he had only days to live, he called into question the New York City police covert investigations, saying that they were “without the establishment of reasonable suspicion.” He then issued a statement:
“In my district, African-Americans make up the majority of the population, including those that practice the religion of Islam….The contribution of these Americans in government, education and the military has enriched the city and strengthened the fabric of our nation.”
He ended his statement with a phrase that described his commitment to his community and to his country, using words that the people of Newark would recognize from his time as their local councilor and then representative.
“I hope our security and intelligence forces refrain from infringing upon the civil liberties of the very innocent men, women and children we are seeking to protect,” Congressman Payne stated.
Payne, who was 77 at the time of his death, established loyalty and respect both in and around his hometown of Newark and also in Washington, where the Congressional Black Caucus immediately asked colleagues “for their thoughts and prayers” after the 24-year veteran of Capitol Hill’s illness was announced.
Payne will be remembered not only for his steadfast devotion to his humanitarian causes, but for risking his life on a 2009-fact-finding mission to Somalia, where his plane was fired upon by Islamic militants.
The congressman, who spoke out against repressive regimes in Africa, was optimistic about Somalia’s potential despite the attack. “I believe that a stable Somalia is really a key to a stable Africa,” Payne was quoted as saying.
Late last month, dignitaries described as “foreign policy heavyweights,” including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, met in London to discuss establishing a functional government in Somalia.
Whether or not Payne’s single-handed efforts in Somalia are acknowledged in the future, he will be remembered as a man who managed, for much of his life, to actively care about humanity; whether it was confronting the NYPD or making international headlines as his aircraft escaped mortar shells. All that besides being elected as the first African-American Congressman from the state of New Jersey.