As prepared for delivery
Thank you, Reverend Jefferson. It is an honor to join with you, Governor Christie, President Clinton, and leaders from across and beyond this state – and with so many of Congressman Payne’s family members, friends, colleagues, and constituents – as we pay tribute to the remarkable life, and the enduring legacy, of a dedicated public servant, a determined advocate, a dear friend, and a beloved father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.
I want to thank the Payne family – including the Congressman’s brother, William, and sister, Kathryn; his son, Donald; and daughters, Wanda and Nicole – for allowing me to share in this occasion. I also would like to recognize Congressman Payne’s extended family – the people of New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District. Without question, representing you in Washington was the highlight and highest honor of his career. So it’s especially moving to see such an outpouring of affection and appreciation from so many neighbors, friends, and fellow New Jerseyans whose lives have been touched, and enriched, by the exceptional leader we’ve gathered to remember.
Although we have come together in a time of loss, it is clear that we are bound by more than grief. We are united by our gratitude – for Congressman Payne’s enduring contributions, his many sacrifices, and his inspiring achievements. And – as he would be the first to remind us – we are also joined by a shared responsibility – to carry on his critical work, to carry forward his vision of a stronger nation and a better world, and to live up to the example of service that he left to us.
Throughout his life, Donald Payne was a champion for the most vulnerable among us – a trailblazer who, even as he rose to unprecedented heights, never forgot to reach back and help to lift up those in need. As the first African American to represent New Jersey in the United States Congress, he brought the perspective of a public school teacher to the halls of power in our nation’s capital. And he proved to be both a statesman and gentleman. In a city where progress can too often be stalled by bureaucracy and big egos, he showed how compassion, courage, and willingness to find common ground can drive positive change.
At every turn, just as surely as he was a strong advocate for his constituents – and, in particular, for young people, the elderly, and those across, and far beyond, this country who could not speak out or stand up for themselves – so, too, was he a determined enemy: of poverty; of violence and cruelty toward children; of obstacles to prosperity; of war; and of human rights abuses around the world.
In addition – for President Obama, for me, and for so many other beneficiaries of his work – Congressman Payne was a treasured friend, advisor, and role model. We have stood on his shoulders – and been privileged to walk through the doorways of opportunity that he pried open. He helped make real the possibility of our nation’s first African-American President – and first African-American Attorney General.
Over the course of his 12 terms in Congress, he rose to become a powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and a Congressional delegate to the United Nations. He fought tirelessly for the middle class, for quality education, for peace in war-torn Africa, and for the human dignity of millions around the world.
Of course, I could go on and on about his fierce and effective advocacy, and many achievements. But one of the most admirable things about Donald Payne was that he wouldn’t want me to. In a business where taking credit is nothing less than an art form, Congressman Payne was always the last to seek recognition. He focused, not on the spotlight, but on solving problems and serving others. And his legacy lies in the summer jobs programs that have done so much to keep America’s young people in school and out of the criminal justice system; in the diplomatic and humanitarian attention that the world has focused on Africa; in the aid that has saved and improved countless lives; and in the stories of so many individual New Jerseyans, who – for 24 years – were fortunate to have one of the best and strongest voices in Washington speaking out on their behalf.
Yet – were he here today – I know that Congressman Payne would seize this opportunity to point out that – for all the progress that we’ve seen as a nation, and all the achievements that he, personally, helped to bring about – much more remains to be done. In far too many neighborhoods here in Newark and across this country, there are kids who will not find their way to college, and who will find the doors of opportunity to be closed. In countries like Sudan and Somalia, there are ordinary citizens who cry out for an end to suffering, to violence, and to poverty – but still find the community of nations slow to respond.
Today, we can be justifiably proud of the progress that Congressman Payne dedicated his life to making – both here and around the world. But, as we take him to his rest this morning, it is also time to recommit ourselves to the spirit of compassion that defined him, and the call to service that shaped his career – a call that his brother and his son have already taken up, each in his own way.
Let these efforts be our common cause. Let our work be Donald Payne’s living monument. And let his unwavering faith – in our nation, in the citizens of New Jersey, and in the power of public service – continue to guide our steps forward.
Once again, thank you for the chance to share in this moment, and for the opportunity to join you in bidding farewell to an extraordinary leader and mentor – and a good friend.
It is now my privilege to read a letter of condolence to the Payne family.