When Darfuri human rights activist Abdalmageed Haroun was jailed and being tortured in Sudan several years ago, it was the late Congressman Donald Payne who was instrumental in helping secure Haroun’s release. Haroun, who was later granted asylum in the United States, was among a group of former colleagues, friends, and beneficiaries of Payne’s social justice-minded work who gathered last week to pay tribute to the longtime congressman, who passed away in March. The event took place on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, June 19, the day before World Refugee Day.
Payne, a member of the Democratic party, devotedly served as the U.S. representative for New Jersey's 10th Congressional district for 23 years. Payne is best remembered for working tirelessly to bring attention to crimes against humanity, promoting human rights, and supporting the protection of refugees both in the United States and abroad. As one of the most committed and outspoken advocates for strong U.S. policy related to Africa, Payne worked passionately to spur U.S. action in Darfur and Rwanda and to bring attention to the fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. He was involved in peace processes in Sudan and Northern Ireland, and in 1998, he aided President Bill Clinton on his famous six-country tour of Africa, the first major visit by an American president to the continent in 20 years. Toward the end of his career Payne, also advocated for human rights in Latin America. Congressman Payne also worked to improve working conditions within the United States, fighting for affordable health care, worker safety, and an increased minimum wage.
Members of Congress including Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), Keith Ellison (D-MO), Sam Farr (D-CA), Hank Johnson (D-MA), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Nita Lowey (D-NY), Jim McGovern (D-MA), and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) all shared kind words about Payne’s legacy, character, and the inspiration he provided. Anne Richard, assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, spoke of Payne’s relentless fight for the world's most vulnerable populations and called on U.S. leaders to continue supporting refugees and displaced persons. George Biddle, the executive vice president of the International Rescue Committee, was the master of ceremonies for the event.
William D. Payne, the congressman’s brother, also gave a moving speech about his character and compassion for others, describing Congressman Payne as someone who “Walked with kings, but never lost the common touch.”
Donald M. Payne Jr., the late congressman’s son, won a special election last month to fill his father’s Congressional seat.
Photo: Abdalmageed Haroun from Darfur speaking at Congressman Payne's legacy celebration (Enough)