Congressman Don Payne, who represented Newark, New Jersey, in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than 20 years, died March 6 of colon cancer. His death represents the passing of yet another member of a unique generation of members of Congress who respected the institution and sought election to it because they took policy seriously and saw it as a means of doing good for people both in America and abroad.
I had the privilege of knowing Don when I worked for the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He served on the Africa subcommittee for most, if not all, of his tenure in the House, and was deeply engaged in the defense and promotion of human rights in Africa. But although Africa was his focus, his involvement was broader. The Washington Office on Latin America, on whose Board of Directors I have the honor to serve, issued a statement describing Don as “a long-time champion of peace and justice around the world,” and lauding his efforts to advance human rights in Colombia: “He systematically took action to protect the lives of Afro-Colombian activists, human rights defenders, and internally displaced leaders.”
Don’s involvement was not limited to foreign affairs. He had a deep and abiding faith in the power of education as a means of advancement for the constituents that he met on the streets of Newark, and he worked tirelessly for educational opportunity as a member of the Education and Workforce Committee.
Don Payne, along with others of that generation of members of Congress, will stand as an example of the nobility to which Congress can rise when good people seek office and use it for human betterment.
Victor C. Johnson is the senior adviser for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.