During Black History Month, we have mostly celebrated a handful of nationally known greats, but outside of the pages of this newspaper and a few local institutions, few know or have said anything about the local greats of Black History.
One such individual was Atty. George Payton, whose ideas were similar to that of Martin Luther King and was one of the most popular of local leaders of the 1960s and 70s, but is little known outside of the Charleston area and those who were of age at the time.
George Payton was born in Charleston on May 26, 1929, and raised in Union Heights. After graduation from Burke High in 1949, he wanted to go to college, but could not afford to do so.
He joined the Air Force, and upon his honorable discharge in 1953, he attended South Carolina State College on the G.I. Bill, where he received a BA in Music and later a law degree from that institution’s law school.
He would also find time to teach band and music classes at Summerville’s Alston High and Charleston’s Columbus Street Elementary before opening up his law practice in downtown Charleston.
His practice was described at the time as being “large, but most of his clients are from the poor, both black and white.”
Mr. Payton was often described by those who remember him as a man far ahead of his time. In 1968, only three years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and very few blacks served in local public office, Mr. Payton decided to run for Congress against Charleston’s then-powerful congressman Lucius Mendel Rivers. In a campaign pamphlet, he stated, “I will offer imaginative leadership. Not for Negroes, not for Whites, but for all people who have to work for a living.”
Over forty years before President Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, Atty. Payton made this proposal in his campaign literature. “I believe that every man, woman, and child deserves the best quality of medical care possible. I do not believe that money should be a prerequisite for medical services. Therefore, I favor extending social security legislation to the extent that all medical expenditures of all citizens should be covered.”
He lost that election, but he ran for the state senate in 1974. He told a Georgetown audience that year, “I am interested in people issues that affect the lives of all. Old and young, black and white, rich and poor. We need people of good will together to form a coalition of conscience, a vanguard with the spirit de corps to stand up for candidates that will protect the rights of the people. With the building of a coalition of mutual respect and cooperation among the people…we can change the issues from special interests to the needs of the people.”
In spite of his losing that election also, he was a beloved figure among black Charlestonians. He was one of the few local leaders with education and articulation that would speak for those who could not speak for themselves and used his skills to improve the conditions of others. Another issue that he passionately fought for was the fight for poor people to save their land from wealthy realtors. It is widely believed that this was what led to the horrible events of March 18, 1975. During a telephone conversation with fellow attorney Joab Dowling, a black man entered his office on Spring Street and shot him to death. The murder was never solved and his daughter Angel recently fought to have the case reopened. However, the Charleston Chronicle of March 29, 1975, showed what Payton’s community felt about him. The paper reported that 10,000 local mourners attended his funeral at Morris Street Baptist Church.
During these times when the people are crying out for leadership with this kind of dedication, foresight, and articulation, it is hoped that stories of people such as Attorney George Payton will be used to inspire the present and future generations to grow into the kind of leadership that communities such as ours so desperately needs.