Remembering New Jersey's First Black Congressman

New Jersey's first black Congressman, Donald Payne, died today at the age of 77. He was known as a strong advocate for education and civil rights during his 23 years in office. He also championed international causes like HIV prevention, malaria treatment and famine aid. Host Michel Martin remembers Congressman Payne's legacy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, a sad note from the world of politics. Congressman Donald Payne, the dean of the New Jersey Congressional Delegation died this morning after a months-long battle with colon cancer. He was 77 years old. The Democrat served for 23 years in New Jersey's 10th Congressional District, which includes Newark, where he began his political career as a city council member. Mr. Payne was the first African-American from New Jersey to be elected to Congress and at the time of his death was the only black representative from the state.

At one point in the 1990s he served as the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Representative Payne served on the House Education and Labor Committee, showing on his own experience as a teacher in Newark to craft positions on early childhood education and closing the racial achievement gap.

But he was also lauded for his international work, including his longstanding focus on Africa, where he fought for greater funding and support of HIV prevention, aid for famine victims and building democracy around the continent. That mission was sometimes dangerous.

Here's Donald Payne speaking about the summer program in August about a journey he took to Somalia.

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REPRESENTATIVE DONALD PAYNE: I went to Mogadishu two years ago. I was the first American official to go into Mogadishu since we left in the mid-90s. And I saw that there is tremendous potential, the Somali people are very resilient, and I had great meetings all day. Of course, on my way out al-Shabaab fired missiles at my plane, but fortunately it missed.

MARTIN: Despite his health challenges, Congressman Payne was still active on Capitol Hill. He recently spoke out against the monitoring of Muslim groups by the New York City Police Department, and was planning his reelection campaign.

Once again, U.S. Representative Donald Payne died today at the age of 77. He is survived by three children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk tomorrow.

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