(Mel Evans/AP) - U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne, D-N.J., center, gestures during a news conference at Newark Liberty International Airport. Payne, the first African American elected to represent New Jersey in Congress, died Tuesday. He was 77. (Mel Evans/AP)

Donald M. Payne, who served 12 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the first African American congressman from New Jersey, died March 6 at a hospital in Livingston, N.J., according to a statement from his office. He was 77 and had colon cancer.

Rep. Payne was first elected to the House in 1988, taking over the seat that had previously been held for 40 years by Peter W. Rodino. The district encompassed parts of Jersey City, Elizabeth and Rep. Payne’s home town of Newark.

Rep. Payne was a past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was considered a vocal advocate for education, labor, health care and fair housing and helped push through legislation to increase education grants for students and to reduce interest rates on college loans.

Rep. Payne was a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and a past chairman of its Africa and global health subcommittee, He was among the first public officials to denounce mass killings in the Darfur region of Sudan as “genocide.”

“This is a pariah government, which once harbored Osama bin Laden and took more than 20 years to even begin to end its civil war with the south,” Rep. Payne told The Washington Post in 2004. “Darfur could happen again if we don’t condemn this government’s role in planning and executing” the militia’s campaign of killing.

He also served on influential congressional advisory groups and was a member of the Democratic steering committee, which assigns committee posts and develops the party’s legislative priorities.

In 1994, Rep. Payne led an official delegation to Rwanda, seeking to end the ethnic violence that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. In 2004, he called for the creation of an international war crimes tribunal to hold Sudanese militia members responsible for widespread massacres in Darfur. Within a year, the International Criminal Court began an investigation of the atrocities.

“Don Payne stood for human rights throughout his career,” Mark Schneider, senior vice president at the International Crisis Group, a human rights organization, said in an interview. “He forced several administrations to acknowledge what was happening throughout Africa and pressed for major diplomatic and financial commitments to Africa.”

Twice during visits to Somalia, Rep. Payne’s airplane was fired on by militants, but he escaped injury. He made so many trips to Africa and Haiti that he was sometimes accused of neglecting his constituents in New Jersey. In response, he pointed to the millions of dollars spent on federal projects in his district.

Because he seldom faced political opposition in his district, Rep. Payne “had the luxury of following his heart in his voting record,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “He was consistently one of the most liberal members of Congress.”

Yet Rep. Payne found an unexpected ally in his concern for Africa in conservative Republican President George W. Bush.

“I opposed him on everything — Iraq, the economy, civil liberties,” Rep. Payne told the Star-Ledger of Newark in 2009. “But he was great on Africa and AIDS. He went beyond what any other president has done.”

Donald Milford Payne was born July 16, 1934, in Newark. His father was a chauffeur and a lumber handler for the forest products company Weyerhaeuser, where the future congressman also worked while attending Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. After graduating in 1957, he became a teacher and football coach in Newark.

In 1958, Rep. Payne married Hazel Johnson, who died of cancer in 1963. He raised their son and daughter alone and never remarried. He later had a daughter from another relationship.

In 1964, Rep. Payne became an executive with Prudential Insurance, and six years later he became the first black president of the national council of YMCAs. From 1973 to 1981, as chairman of the World YMCA Refugee and Rehabilitation Committee, he traveled to more than 80 countries. He later became an executive in his brother’s computer company.

He began working in politics in the 1950s, when his brother, William Payne, was elected to the Newark city council and later to the state legislature.

“The Payne family is kind of a dynasty in Newark,” said Harrison, the Montclair State professor. “They are viewed as kingmakers.”

Rep. Payne was elected to the Essex County board in 1972 and, 10 years later, to the Newark city council. The congressman’s son, Donald M. Payne Jr., is the current president of the Newark City Council, and his nephew served in the state legislature.

Survivors include three children; his brother; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

After losing two earlier primary challenges to Rodino, Rep. Payne was elected to Congress in 1988, when Rodino retired.

While campaigning that year, Rep. Payne said, “We have to understand there are no more impossible dreams for black youngsters. They can do basically anything they want to do, and if I’m a prime example of that, all the better.”