Donald Payne, New Jersey’s First Black Congressman, Dies at 77

Donald Payne Dies at 77
In 2004, Congress passed a resolution introduced by Representative Donald Payne describing the killings in the Darfur region of Sudan as “genocide,” the first time Congress had applied the term to an ongoing massacre, the New Yorker magazine reported. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Payne, New Jersey’s first and so far only black congressman and a leading advocate for democracy in Africa during 23 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, has died. He was 77.

He died today at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey, of complications from colon cancer, his office said.

The senior member of New Jersey’s House delegation, Payne represented the 10th congressional district, which includes parts of Newark, Jersey City and Elizabeth, the state’s urban core across the Hudson River from New York City, as well as suburbs including Maplewood and Millburn. He was a longtime member of House committees that oversee education and foreign affairs, and a former chairman of the foreign affairs subcommittee on Africa.

President Barack Obama, speaking at the end of a White House news conference, said Payne “was a wonderful man who did great work both domestically and internationally.”

In New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie planned to order flags lowered in honor of Payne, according to his spokesman, Michael Drewniak.

“He was a great role model for every person in New Jersey who aspires to public service,” Christie said in a statement. “He was a true gentleman and we considered him a friend.”

On one of his many trips to the African continent, a 2009 visit to Somalia after a U.S. advisory against Americans visiting there, Payne narrowly escaped a mortar attack in the capital, Mogadishu. Islamist insurgents took responsibility for the attack on the Mogadishu airport as Payne was leaving.

Trip With Clinton

An earlier trip to Africa was a 12-day tour with President Bill Clinton in 1998 to Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal. Upon his return, Payne told the Associated Press that he hoped the coverage of the trip would give Americans a new awareness and appreciation of African countries that were making strides toward democracy.

“The only images during the past decade have been those of strife, disease, conflict, dictators, children starving,” he said. “So for the first time, America had an opportunity to see a balanced picture of Africa.”

In 2004, Congress passed a resolution introduced by Payne describing the killings in the Darfur region of Sudan as “genocide,” the first time Congress had applied the term to an ongoing massacre, the New Yorker magazine reported.

Payne was a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and he led the group’s nonprofit foundation.

‘Earned Respect’

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said the congressman “earned respect around the world for his outspoken advocacy on behalf of human rights and the worth and dignity of every person,” according to a statement released by her office.

Payne faced little competition in his strongly Democratic district, winning his last general election, in 2010, with 85 percent of the vote.

Those seeking to run for the seat left vacant by Payne’s death must register to run in the state’s primary election by the April 2 deadline, according to New Jersey’s Division of Elections. The primary is scheduled for June 5.

Donald Milford Payne was born on July 16, 1934, in Newark to William Evander Payne and the former Norma Garrett, according to “Black Americans in Congress,” a House publication.

They lived in the Doodletown neighborhood of the city’s predominantly Italian-American North Ward, according to a 1988 New York Times story. His father worked as a chauffeur for families in East Orange and as a lumber handler for Weyerhaeuser on the waterfront.

‘Sense of Neighborhood’

“Everyone, whites and blacks, worked for low wages, although we didn’t think of it as living in poverty, and there was a real sense of neighborhood, of depending on one another,” he told the Times.

Payne earned a bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall University in neighboring South Orange in 1957 and married the former Hazel Johnson in 1958, according to the House publication. She died in 1963.

He worked as a public-school teacher, an executive at Prudential Insurance Co. and vice president of Urban Data Systems Inc., both based in Newark. The latter company, where he was employed when he was elected to Congress, was started by his brother, William, and made computer forms, according to the Times.

From 1970 to 1973 he served as the first black president of the National Council of YMCAs, and he was a member of the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders from 1972 to 1978. From 1973 to 1981 he was chairman of the World YMCA Refugee and Rehabilitation Committee, a job that took him to 80 countries, according to the Times. He served on Newark’s city council from 1982 to 1988.

Challenged Rodino

In 1980 and 1986, Payne waged unsuccessful primary challenges to Newark’s longtime Democratic congressman, Peter Rodino. Known nationally as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon, Rodino retired in 1988. Payne ran for the seat that year and won.

“Nothing is as powerful as a dream whose time has come,” he told the Times after the election.

Payne and his wife had three children including Donald M. Payne Jr., president of the Newark Municipal Council.

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