The Battle for the Ballot

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 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 the 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.

Changing the Framework of the Law

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.  Griggs transformed our nation’s workplaces 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) where the Supreme Court barred enforcement of racially discriminatory restrictions on real estate transfers.

In the Pursuit of Justice

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. LDF has been a leader in challenging its constitutionality for decades, a history that is outlined in the New Yorker. LDF won a nationwide halt to executions in a landmark 1972 case, Furman v. Georgia.  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, but the Court disregarded LDF’s compelling evidence, which showed that discrimination infected every aspect of the state’s capital punishment system. LDF continues to fight against systemic racial bias such as in the mission to grant Texas death row inmate Duane Buck, whose death sentence is an unconstitutional product of racial discrimination, a new and fair sentencing hearing.

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.

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.

Educating Future Defenders

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.

Our Continuing Mission

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, 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.

In 2013, the Supreme Court immobilized the preclearance process in Shelby County v. Holder, a challenge to Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Voting Rights Act. LDF had vigorously defended the VRA’s constitutionality in the Supreme Court and in the lower courts where we argued for its continued protection. Following the Shelby County decision, states and local jurisdictions have been free to implement changes in voting without the preclearance process to determine whether those changes are racially discriminatory or harmful to language minorities. LDF has been fighting to preserve the protections for political participation and representation that are entrenched in our Constitution and is currently involved in litigation challenge restrictive voter ID laws in Texas and Alabama.

And in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin,  LDF has combatted 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.