Appointment and Resignation of Carolyn Payton

October 11, 1977 to December 18, 1978

After a five-month search for a new director of the Peace Corps, in which Sam Brown offered the job to Rafer Johnson, then-representative Ron Dellums of California, Jane Hart – the widow of former Senator Philip Hart – and LaDonna Harris, Brown appointed Carolyn Payton as Director of the Peace Corps. Payton was the first female Director of the Peace Corps, and the first African American.


Sam Brown ACTION

Brown clashed with Payton from the start. And after only thirteen months in the position, in November 1979, Brown asked for her resignation. She initially agreed to resign, then withdrew her resignation and issued a statement that implied she would not leave unless asked directly by President Carter, who asked for her resignation shortly thereafter. Payton cited, in part, policy differences between ACTION and the Peace Corps saying “as Director, I could not, because of the peculiar administrative structure under which the Peace Corps operates, do anything about this situation. As an ex-director, I am free to sound the alarm.

Future congressman John Lewis, then the associate director of ACTION under Brown, wrote that the conflict between Brown and Payton was entirely over policy: “The resignation of Carolyn Payton stemmed from regrettable – but nonetheless honest and unreconcilable – differences with the administration concerning policy and philosophy.

Many of the policy issues between Payton and Brown were revealed after her resignation. Brown for example announced that the Peace Corps would only work in the poorest countries based on GNP and announced that the Peace Corps would pull out of countries that did not meet its criteria for aid. Peace Corps Director Payton responded that “Whether or not we could find satisfactory jobs for volunteers was a better criteria than how much money a country has … It’s offensive to me to tell a host country what their needs are.”

According to Payton, Brown wanted to “send volunteers for short periods to developing countries and then bring back the skills they had learned to fight poverty in the United States”. She also claimed that Brown’s policy went against the original goals of the Peace Corps and said that Brown was “trying to turn the corps into an arrogant, elitist political organization intended to meddle in the affairs of foreign governments.”[

In 1994, during the confirmation hearings for Brown’s later ambassadorship to the CSCE, Payton’s resignation was interpreted in two very different ways by his supporters and opponents. According to the 44 Senators who later rejected the motion for cloture on Brown’s appointment as ambassador to the CSCE (the Senators who opposed his nomination), Brown was undiplomatic and unjustified in dismissing Payton. They claimed, that Payton’s differences with Brown ended in an argument during a trip to Morocco, when Brown openly berated Dr. Payton before Action Corps officials and Brown’s “attacks culminated with a midnight phone-call demanding her resignation, which she refused to give, after which he went to her hotel room and pounded on her door for a full fifteen minutes, demanding to be let in to continue his harassment”.

According to those 56 Senators in support of the cloture motion (and, presumably, of Brown’s nomination):

Criticisms of Mr. Brown’s performance at this agency are unfounded. In the 1970s, Senator Simon (who was then Representative Simon), held extensive hearings on the operation of the ACTION Agency. A few problems were uncovered, but they were long-standing problems that were eventually corrected by Mr. Brown, and the hearings produced no direct criticism of his performance. The final result of those hearings was that Congress decided he was doing an exemplary job, and it increased the agency’s budget by 20 percent.


After Payton’s resignation, Richard Celeste was appointed the new Peace Corps Director on April 27, 1979. According to P. David Searles (Philippines Country Director 1971-74; PC Deputy Director 1974-76) in his book the Peace Corps Experience: “Under Celeste the agency was given considerable autonomy to direct its own affairs,” wrote Searles, “although strictly speaking it remained under the Action umbrella.”


One Comment

Leave a comment
  • Reading about my friend Carolyn and ACTION’s Sam Brown…bought back many memories! My wife and I met Carolyn in Puerto Rico in Camp Radley where I was the Language Director for Peace Corps and my wife Gloria was a Language Instructor. Carolyn was our close friend in Puerto Rico and respected by the Peace Corps Trainees. Only good feelings…she loved and respected Peace Corps!
    Later I became the personal Assistant to the Director of ACTION, Mike Bálsamo under the Ford Administración. When Carter was elected, Sam Brown was appointed to head ACTION. Being a Democract I was asked to stay on and advise Brown. It was a pleasure when Carolyn was appointed Peace Corps Director.
    I did not stay Long under Sam Brown, and returned to Los Angeles. But I remaied in contact with Carolyn Payton.. She called me the day after Sam pounded on her hotel door. Very emotional
    I had no problems with Sam Brown or his staff! I thought President Carter would give Peace Corps support and return the independance that it was founded on by President Kennedy. It never happened
    Please remember Carolyn Payton as someone that loved Peace Corps and believed in the Volunteers!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Copyright © 2022. Peace Corps Worldwide.