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Civil Rights and Race Relations in America and Their Impact on the Lives of African Americans
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The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) is the country’s first and foremost civil and human rights law firm. Founded in 1940 under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, who subsequently became the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, LDF was launched at a time when the nation’s aspirations for equality and due process of law were stifled by widespread state-sponsored racial inequality. From that era to the present, LDF’s mission has always been transformative: to achieve racial justice, equality, and an inclusive society.
As the legal arm of the civil rights movement, LDF has a tradition of expert legal advocacy in the Supreme Court and other courts across the nation. LDF’s victories established the foundations for the civil rights that all Americans enjoy today. In its first two decades, LDF undertook a coordinated legal assault against officially enforced public school segregation. This campaign culminated in Brown v. Board of Education 1, the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1954 that has been described as “the most important American governmental act of any kind since the Emancipation Proclamation.” The Court’s unanimous decision overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine of legally sanctioned discrimination, widely known as Jim Crow.
In the face of fierce and often violent “massive resistance” to public school desegregation, LDF was forced to sue hundreds of school districts across the country to vindicate Brown’s promise. It was not until LDF’s subsequent victories in cases such as Cooper v. Aaron (1958)2, Green v. County School Board (1968)3,and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971)4, that the Supreme Court issued mandates that ultimately required all vestiges of desegregation to be eliminated “root and branch.” In more recent decades, LDF has remained at the forefront of the ongoing struggle to ensure a high-quality and equitable opportunity to learn for all of our nation’s youth. For instance, LDF served as lead counsel to African-American and Latino students who intervened in litigation leading up to the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger5, which sanctioned race-conscious university admissions policies to obtain the educational benefits of a diverse student body.
LDF’s crusade against racial discrimination has not been limited to public education. As a result of LDF’s litigation in the 1940s-1960s, the Supreme Court overturned state-sanctioned segregation of public buildings, parks and recreation facilities, hospitals, and restaurants. Many of these victories resulted from LDF’s determined representation of civil rights movement leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless grassroots activists who were arrested for participating in freedom rides, demonstrations, and marches to protest entrenched racial discrimination throughout the country. In Hamm v. City of Rock Hill (1964)6 for example, LDF persuaded the Supreme Court to dismiss all prosecutions of demonstrators who had participated in civil rights sit-ins.
LDF has also consistently fought to eliminate barriers to full political participation by all Americans in our nation’s democratic processes. In 1943, Thurgood Marshall successfully persuaded the Supreme Court to rule in Smith v. Allwright 7 that Texas’s refusal to allow African-Americans to vote in the Democratic primary election violated the 15th Amendment. In 1965, LDF litigated to ensure against disruptions of Dr. King’s voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama shortly after the notorious “Bloody Sunday” episode, when marchers were beaten by policemen as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge. These events galvanized passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of our nation’s core federal civil rights statutes, which LDF and other advocates have repeatedly used to safeguard citizens’ voting rights and ensure more inclusive democratic governance.
As a longstanding champion of economic justice, LDF has had many groundbreaking victories. One of LDF’s most important triumphs was the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1971 decision in Griggs v. Duke Power Company 8. Griggs literally transformed our nation’s work places by embracing a powerful tool – now known as the “disparate impact” framework – that has helped to eradicate arbitrary and artificial barriers to equal employment opportunity for all individuals, regardless of their race. In Griggs and hundreds of other class-action suits against employers, unions, and government at all levels, LDF has helped secure jobs and employment rights for tens of thousands of citizens confronted by unfair employment practices. LDF has also won many important challenges to housing discrimination, beginning with Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)9 where the Supreme Court barred enforcement of racially discriminatory restrictions on real estate transfers.
Of all the injustices that LDF has challenged in its seven-decade history, few still confront our nation with such blunt force as the persistent racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. LDF has challenged inadequate legal representation, discriminatory jury selection, capital punishment, and criminal statutes and harsh sentencing that disproportionately impact African-Americans and conspire to ensure the incarceration of large numbers of Blacks in prison.
The death penalty stands out as the starkest example of the racial inequalities that course through the criminal justice system. Since the 1960s, LDF has been at the forefront of the effort to abolish the death penalty. LDF won a nationwide halt to executions in a landmark 1972 case, Furman v. Georgia10. But this victory proved short-lived. Fifteen years later, LDF once again challenged the constitutionality of the death penalty of Georgia in McCleskey v. Kemp 11, but the Court disregarded LDF’s compelling evidence, which showed that discrimination infected every aspect of the state’s capital punishment system.
More recently, LDF has remained in the forefront of successful campaigns that convinced the Supreme Court to narrow the death penalty’s scope by eliminating capital punishment for juveniles and for crimes other than murder.
Additionally, in 2000, LDF highlighted the injustice of sentencing laws in the case of Kemba Smith, a young African-American mother who received a mandatory minimum sentence of 24½ years in prison – even though she was a first-time offender – after her abusive boyfriend led her to play a peripheral role in a cocaine conspiracy. Smith’s case was successfully resolved when President Clinton commuted her sentence.
LDF’s presence in Washington, D.C. has been an essential component of our nation’s civil rights progress. Over the decades, LDF has employed its expertise and worked to ensure that major civil rights laws including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among others were passed, reauthorized, and expanded. Additionally, LDF remains a steadfast advocate in the quest to make the federal judiciary more diverse and representative of the nation.
From the very beginning, LDF assembled a talented team of lawyers who have distinguished themselves in all areas of the legal profession. Following Thurgood Marshall, LDF has been ably led by Jack Greenberg (1961-1984), Julius Chambers (1984-1993), Elaine Jones (1993-2004), Ted Shaw (2004-2008), John Payton (2008-2012) and now Sherrilyn Ifill (2013-present). Each Director-Counsel is recognized as a leading civil rights advocate, and each has argued on behalf of LDF’s clients before the Supreme Court in pivotal civil rights cases.
On par with LDF’s achievements in the courtroom and on Capitol Hill, LDF is the preeminent constitutional training ground for lawyers committed to racial justice and equal opportunity. LDF alumni have gone on to prominent positions in public service, and include a Supreme Court Justice, an Attorney General, the second African-American Governor since Reconstruction, members of Congress, Solicitors General, numerous judges, high-ranking members of the Justice Department, key presidential advisors, leading academics, founders and leaders of prominent non-profits, and foundation, corporate, and philanthropic executives. Among our former cooperating attorneys is President Barack Obama. Additionally, through its scholarship and fellowship programs, LDF has helped over 4,000 exceptional students to graduate from many of the nation’s best colleges, universities, and law schools.
LDF has also been instrumental in the formation of similar organizations that have replicated its organizational model in order to promote equality for Asian-Americans, Latinos, and women in the United States, and to extend the campaign for human rights throughout the world, including in South Africa, Canada, Brazil, and elsewhere. Although initially LDF grew out of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, it has been an entirely independent organization with its own Board of Directors since 1957.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, LDF continues to fight for full racial equality and to guard against efforts to erode previous gains. For instance, in 2010, LDF’s long-standing campaign to expose the injustice of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles was vindicated when the Supreme Court held that such penalties were unconstitutional. Another Supreme Court victory in 2010 was Lewis v. City of Chicago 12, where LDF successfully argued on behalf of over 6,000 African-American firefighter applicants denied a fair shot to land a job with the Chicago Fire Department. Also in 2010, LDF is representing African-American voters in Shelby v. Alabama 13to defend our 2009 Supreme Court victory in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder 14, where we successfully argued for the continued need for the most critical democracy safeguards in the Voting Rights Act. And in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin15, LDF is combating efforts to chip away at settled principles of constitutional law and render Texas’s flagship state university powerless to address the severe racial isolation of its African-American students.
Due to the courage and commitment of its clients, the generosity of its supporters, and the dedication and expertise of its staff and cooperating attorneys over the years, LDF has always been a pioneering force in our nation’s quest for greater equality. LDF will continue to advocate on behalf of African-Americans, both in and outside of the courts, until equal justice for all Americans is attained.
A generous bequest from Edith Adler, a longtime friend of LDF, made it possible for LDF to create a timeline documenting our accomplishments. We are currently making additions to the timeline and look forward to relaunching it on our new site soon.
1. 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
2. 358 U.S. 1 (1958).
3. 391 U.S. 430 (1968).
4. 402 U.S. 1 (1971).
5. 539 U.S. 306 (2003).
6. 379 U.S. 306 (1964).
7. 321 U.S. 649 (1944).
8. 401 U.S. 424 (1971).
9. 334 U.S. 1 (1948).
10. 408 U.S. 238 (1972).
11. 481 U.S. 279 (1987).
12. 560 U.S. _, 130 S. Ct. 2191 (2010).
13. No. 10-651 (D.D.C.).
14. 557 U.S. _, 129 S. Ct. 2504 (2009).
15. No. 09-50822 (5th Cir.).