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Donald Payne, U.S. Congressman and Africa Advocate, Dies at 77

By Lauren Monsen | Staff Writer | 06 March 2012
Close-up of Donald Payne in profile (AP Images)

Representative Donald Payne, who died March 6 in New Jersey, is being remembered as an advocate for human rights who fought injustice at home and around the world.

Washington — Representative Donald Payne, the first African American elected to Congress from New Jersey and a tireless advocate for Africa during his 12 terms in the United States Congress, died March 6 after a brief battle with colon cancer. He was 77.

News of his death brought forth tributes from President Obama and from many congressional colleagues.

“Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Congressman Donald Payne, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. By any standard, Don lived a full and meaningful life,” said the president. “In Washington, he made it his mission to fight for working families, increase the minimum wage, ensure worker safety, guarantee affordable health care and improve the educational system. He was a leader in U.S.-Africa policy, making enormous contributions towards helping restore democracy and human rights across the continent.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Democrat of Maryland) described Payne as “a trailblazer” and “a tireless campaigner for justice” in Sudan and elsewhere.

“Congressman Payne spoke out on behalf of suffering people in some of the most difficult situations around the world: from Rwanda to Sudan to the peace process in Northern Ireland,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Democrat of California). “It was a personal privilege to travel with Congressman Payne to Darfur; he was a leader in bringing attention to the genocide there. He was an expert on the political, economic and security situation throughout the continent of Africa.”

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican of Florida), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and who chaired the House Subcommittee on Africa from 1995 to 1996, issued a statement extending her condolences to the Payne family, saying Payne “will be greatly missed.”

Ros-Lehtinen added: “Congressman Payne was a dedicated and effective advocate for global health and human rights during his 12 terms in the House. As chairman and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, Congressman Payne worked tirelessly to combat the spread of deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. He was also an outspoken advocate against horrific human rights abuses in Africa.”

Representative Chris Smith (Republican of New Jersey), remembering Payne as a “friend and colleague,” said: “I know firsthand how much he truly cared and how hard he worked for peace and reconciliation in war-ravaged nations.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, said Payne was a friend and “a great role model for every person in New Jersey who aspires to public service.” Christie is expected to sign an executive order to have flags at state buildings flown at half-staff in Payne’s honor. 

Shortly before running for Congress in 1988, Payne said: “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.” 

During his time in Congress, Payne — a Democrat — was known as a champion of education who worked to make college more affordable. Widely praised as a tireless advocate for his constituents, he also had a strong interest in global issues and became a de facto ambassador to Africa. Payne authored the Sudan Peace Act, which sought to end the conflict in Sudan and facilitate famine-relief efforts in Darfur, and he frequently traveled to Sudan to assess conditions there.

At the time of his death, Payne was the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Concluding a trip to Somalia in April 2009, Payne was leaving the Somali capital of Mogadishu in an airplane bound for Kenya when mortar shells were fired toward the airport. Nineteen civilians were reportedly injured in residential areas nearby, but Payne was unharmed. He had met with Somalia’s president and prime minister during his one-day visit to Mogadishu to discuss piracy, security and U.S.-Somali cooperation. Payne often visited other parts of Africa, as well.

As a founder of the Malaria Caucus in Congress, Payne helped secure $100 million in foreign aid to treat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Payne dedicated himself to promoting democracy and protecting human rights overseas, winning recognition for his support of the Northern Ireland peace process.

A former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Payne served as head of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the group’s educational and outreach arm. He earned a reputation as a champion of the underprivileged throughout the United States and around the world.

Payne, a widower, is survived by three children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Previously a teacher and an insurance executive, Payne was first elected to Congress in 1988 and represented New Jersey’s 10th District, which encompasses most of Newark, parts of Jersey City and Elizabeth, and some areas in Essex and Union counties. He served in Congress from 1989 until his death.

Donald Payne flanked by Joseph Lowery and President Obama (AP Images)

President Obama greets Representative Donald Payne (center) and the Reverend Joseph Lowery, a civil rights leader, at a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation awards dinner.