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Rep. Donald Payne (1934–2012): Remembering New Jersey’s First African-American Member of Congress

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Representative Donald Payne, the first-ever African-American congressman from New Jersey, died Tuesday at the age of 77 from complications of colon cancer. The former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus was in his 12th term in the House. In 1988, Payne explained his desire to break the color line in Congress, saying, “I want to be a congressman to serve as a role model for the young people I talk to on the Newark street corners… I want them to see there are no barriers to achievement. I want to give them a reason to try.” That year, Payne handily defeated his Republican opponent, Michael Webb, and achieved his dream. In a statement shortly after Payne’s death, President Obama said Payne had “made it his mission to fight for working families.” We discuss Payne’s legacy with his brother, William Payne, and Larry Hamm, the New Jersey chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, to a farewell. Congress Member Donald Payne, the first-ever African-American congressman from New Jersey, the only black congressman from New Jersey in New Jersey’s history, died Tuesday at the age of 77 from complications of colon cancer. The former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus was in his 12th term in the House.

In 1988, Congress Member Payne explained his desire to break the color line in Congress, saying, quote, “I want to be a congressman to serve as a role model for the young people I talk to on the Newark street corners… I want them to see there are no barriers to achievement. I want to give them a reason to try,” he said. That year, Payne handily defeated his Republican opponent, Michael Webb, and achieved his dream.

While in Congress, Payne left his mark in the areas of humanitarian relief and education reform. As a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, he drafted legislation that sought to provide famine relief to the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan. He was also a founder of the Malaria Caucus in Congress and helped secure billions of dollars in humanitarian aid for treating infectious diseases. As a former teacher, Payne led efforts to cut interest rates on Stafford loans for college students and increase the size of need-based Pell grants. He also proudly supported teaching African-American culture and history.

REP. DONALD PAYNE: To know American history, one must know black history. They go hand in hand. Far too often black history has been watered down to disconnected factoids and pieces of trivia or a quick mention in our schools’ history books. We as a nation lost sight of the fact that the accomplishments of African Americans are not ones of disjointed milestones, but ones that have been innumerable, continuous, enduring and diverse.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress Member Payne was also deeply involved in the contemporary struggles of the African-American community, especially around unemployment. In a statement shortly after Payne’s death, President Obama said Payne had, quote, “made it his mission to fight for working families.”

As a member of the New Jersey African American Political Alliance, Payne supported an ongoing Newark movement called “The Campaign for Jobs, Peace, Equality and Justice.” The movement is organized by the People’s Organization for Progress, and today marks the 255th consecutive day protesters have marched to raise awareness about a variety of social issues. Their demands include a national jobs program, an end to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, universal single-payer healthcare. The protest is intended to run 381 days, which was the length of the Montgomery boycott.

To find out more about the Newark campaign and Congress Member Payne’s legacy, we’re joined by two people: by Larry Hamm, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress, as well we’re joined by Donald Payne’s brother, William Payne, the former New Jersey Assembly member.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! First, our condolences to the Payne family and community. William Payne, can you talk about your brother?

WILLIAM PAYNE: Yes, I think I can. We were two years apart, and I guess that made me the big brother. And we have been close throughout the years, but I don’t think that’s unusual. Like, my brother and I used to talk often about the fact that there seemed to be some people that resented the fact that we spent a lot of time together, that we seemed to have so much to talk about when we were together. We seemed to be able to be in our own world together. And Don would say, you know, some people seem to resent that. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. It seemed to be a natural thing for us. But he was—he was my, as I say, my kid brother. And then, someone years ago gave me a painting that—there was a picture of the fellow, the young fellow, carrying his brother on a back and saying, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” And I told my brother recently, I said, “Don, you know, I guess they were talking about you carrying me,” I said, “because people say that, 'Don, you're such a nice guy, but your brother is—oh, my god, how can you stand him? And if we go to places, don’t bring your brother.” So I guess he had to carry me on his back, because there were those that said that Donald was just so nice and genuine. And he was.

He was—my brother was so unassuming. Here is a guy who, I guess, walked with kings but never, ever lost the common touch. He did not realize that he was as significant and as important to the community and to the world as he was. He just took things in stride and never, ever reflected on what position in the world he had. Other people did. They looked at him in awe. An example being, when he went to Newark Airport to try to get back down to Washington, D.C., if there was a long line, he would worry, “Oh, I’m going to miss my plane.” And so, we would say, “Well, Don, why don’t you let them know up there that you’re going to D.C., you’re Congress?” He’d say, “Oh, no, no. All these people are waiting to get on the plane. No.” So he would never, ever jump the line because of who he was. I think the—

AMY GOODMAN: William Payne, you, yourself, brought Dr. King and Malcolm X to Rutgers campus?

WILLIAM PAYNE: Yes, yes, yes, true. That’s true. For some reason, when I was 16 years old, I had an epiphany that said that never again should I stand on the sidelines while the African-American people were being denied their rights. And that came about when I read about a man by the name of Dr. Ralph Bunche. I read about him, and I said that if that black man, like me, can rise to the heights that he has, then I could—

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations.

WILLIAM PAYNE: Yes, yes, yes. And he won the Nobel Peace Prize. And I said, at that point—at that point, I almost physically felt the chains of segregation and inferiority and all those things fall from me. I mean, I almost physically felt a metamorphosis from being a second-class citizen, being a Negro, being a colored man, to being someone who said, “From now on, we’re going to do something about it.”

Well, yeah, so I—when I went to Rutgers University, there was no chapter of the NAACP there. Even though I, as a person, was the national chairman of the NAACP Youth and College Chapters across the country, I was going to a university that had no chapter in the entire state. I said, “This can’t last.” So, anyway, I organized a college chapter there, the first one in the state of New Jersey. The dean of students wasn’t happy about it. I invited Malcolm X to come to Rutgers University to speak to the students. Of course, the dean of students was very angry [inaudible]. Yes, we brought Malcolm there.

And Dr. Martin Luther King, yes, I met Dr. King in 1956 and became close to him for the rest of his life. Just the last time he came to New Jersey was a week before he was killed, and I had happened to run into him at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. I drove up there to try to get inside the church. I was a little late. There was no place to park, so I double-parked my car. And as I was getting out of my car, running toward the church, a car pulled up, and I heard someone say, “Hey Bill, Bill, wait for me.” It was Dr. King. He was arriving at the church, and he said, “Bill, I’m so exhausted. I’m just so tired.” He said, “They want me to go to another church after this program.” He said, “Well, I can’t do it. I’m just too tired.” He said, “I’m going to Harry’s house after this, and to raise some money” — Harry Belafonte. Anyway, he went in, made his speech. He came out, and he said, “Bill, I’m going to Harry’s. Why don’t you ride over there with me?” I started to get in the car with him, but I realized I was double-parked, blocking people. And I said, “Oh, Dr. King, I can’t go tonight.” I said, “I’ll see you next time.” He said, “OK, Bill.” He waved goodbye to me out of the back window of that car, and I never saw him again alive. And the next time I was with him was at his funeral. So, yeah, I—but through the years, I was close to Dr. King, and we shared a lot of things together. But—

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play another clip of Congress Member Donald Payne, a vocal opponent of the Iraq war.

REP. DONALD PAYNE: I was the first member on the Democratic side to vehemently oppose giving the preemptive strike to the President, oppose the war. And so, I had the privilege of—for the two-day debate, of controlling the debate on the floor of the House. And I recall some of us pleading. At that time, the inspectors—Hans Blix and the inspectors—were given authority to go anywhere at that time by Saddam Hussein. However, President Bush ordered the U.N. inspectors out in 48 hours. I knew then that he had his mind made up. Saddam Hussein was admitting that he had no weapons of mass destruction, had no chemical or biological weapons, and that’s why he stopped preventing the inspectors from going wherever they wanted to go. However, the administration’s mind was made up, and they were going to go in on Shock and Awe, come hell or high water.

AMY GOODMAN: And last month, Congress Member Payne responded to the New York Police Department investigation of Newark’s Muslim communities. He expressed his deep concern, saying, quote, “Yes, we face threats from radical Islamic terrorists, but the millions of patriotic, peace-loving Muslims living and working in America are our best defense against threats to our national security. In the quest to prevent terrorist attacks, 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.”

Larry Hamm, you have long opposed police brutality. You’re chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. He was just speaking against the Iraq war. You were recently with Congress Member Payne, endorsing this massive protest you have been holding.

LARRY HAMM: That’s right. That’s right. His organization, the New Jersey African American Political Alliance—he invited me to speak before that organization to lay out the demands of the daily protest, the logistics of it. And right there on the spot, the organization voted, and he and the organization endorsed our campaign of protest for jobs for 381 days.

I was also with Congressman Payne in December at a forum at the African-American Cultural Center of the Women in Support of the Million Man March. And Congressman Payne and I were together on a panel about black unemployment and the high rates of unemployment. And that allowed us the opportunity to talk about this campaign, in which we’re now on the 255th day. We started on the 27th of June of last year, and we’re going to go until July 15th of this year. And we are taking our inspiration from the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. But Congressman Payne said to me that he was planning to come and join us on that picket line. And I’m just sorry—the whole community is going to miss him, and I’m sorry he won’t be able to join us in person, but he will certainly be with us in spirit.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is the picket line?

LARRY HAMM: We protest five days a week. We’re at the intersection of West Market Street and Springfield Avenue, right across the street from Essex County College. We’re there from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m.

AMY GOODMAN: And why did you choose that area?

LARRY HAMM: Well, that’s a high-visibility, high-traffic area, and we’re trying to impact the general population. And it’s in the center of downtown Newark. So we’re there Monday through Friday. On Saturday, we move down to Broad and Market, which is just a few blocks away. And on Sunday, we return to West Market.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of doing this in Newark, Larry Hamm?

LARRY HAMM: Well, the significance is that Newark, New Jersey, has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the state. Right now the official unemployment rate is about 15.6 percent, but if we were to count those people who stopped looking for jobs, whose unemployment has run out, it’s more like 25 to 30 percent, which is almost three times Depression-level unemployment.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the earliest endorsers of Romney is your governor, Chris Christie. Your assessment of his running of the state?

LARRY HAMM: Well, right now, I think a lot of people are really upset with many of the proposals that have come out, and I think this is going to be reflected in the vote in November.

AMY GOODMAN: And your assessment of President Obama? Don Payne, the only African-American Congress member in New Jersey’s history, I think that says something about Don Payne—


AMY GOODMAN: —and also says something about New Jersey.

LARRY HAMM: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama, the first African-American president.

LARRY HAMM: Well, I’m certain that President Obama is going to get the same massive voter turnout that he got in 2008. It may even be higher, because of the opposition. It’s just—these are people who are looking backward. They want to go past the Civil Rights Act. They want to go past the New Deal. And to go backward means more suffering and more pain in our community, and people are not just going to take it lying down. People are going to fight back. They’re going to organize, and they’re going to mobilize. There’s going to be a big turnout on Election Day. And I think, after Election Day, people are going to stay in the streets to continue to pressure for jobs and for peace.

One of the memories I have of Congressman Payne was when the People’s Organization for Progress, together with other groups, pulled together the Peace and Justice Coalition in 2007. We had the largest antiwar march in the history of Newark, New Jersey. And Congressman Payne and Congressman Conyers were with us in the lead of that march on that day.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Larry Hamm, for joining us, New Jersey chair of the People’s Organization for Progress, and former New Jersey Assembly Member William Payne, remembering his brother. Donald Payne died this week at the age of 77. He died of colon cancer, a sitting New Jersey Congress member.

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