Black Justice, Black Joy

Dreaming Bigger in the Fight for Civil Rights

By Lindsey Norward

Senior Staff Writer

For weeks following the horrific murder of George Floyd in May 2020, protesters took to the streets, their hands clasped onto signs as their feet marched along the pavement. Brimming with passion and energy, the sounds of their despair and exhaustion at persistent injustices reverberated through the streets. At the same time, though, lively chants, vibrant live music, speakers blasting protest anthems, rhythmic drumming, and joyous song saliently filled the air, harmonizing against the clash of tear gas and violence directed at them as they rallied for justice.

Within these sounds, despite and amid the pain, were expressions rooted in Black joy. 

These simultaneous expressions of deep sorrow and hopeful elation are an enduring part of Black people’s present and past in the United States, existing in various forms throughout the long and winding fight for civil rights and racial equality. Indeed, in a manner similar to 2020 protesters expressing jubilation amid their quest to seek justice, even in the face of police violence, voting rights foot soldiers in 1965 crooned “Freedom Songs” as they marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, despite facing unspeakable violence and harassment from law enforcement. In sharing joy amid sorrow, Black people have not only challenged injustice with triumph — through joy, they’ve envisioned the unwritten and unseen within the future, imagining what could be possible. 

Black Justice, Black Joy, and LDF’s Legacy

It was with a vision for a more equitable future that Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall founded the Legal Defense Fund on March 20, 1940. In the pursuit of racial justice, Marshall and his team of lawyers were inspired by a transformative calling for Black people to live freely as their full selves. Imbued with dedication and resilience, their work pushed the bounds of what was possible for America. Their decisions to dream bigger — to defy the current status quo for Black people to not only be able to live justly, but also joyfully — changed the course of the country forever.

Now, 83 years since LDF’s founding and as the fight for true equality for all continues, cultivating Black joy remains a driving, guiding force embedded within the organization’s legacy. This work to defend and advance the rights of Black people crucially recognizes that an acknowledgment of these communities’ trials, suffering, and anguish cannot exist without celebration, pride, and joy. Within its historic fabric, LDF’s work could not be visionary without finding joy in the hope of tomorrow — a transformative imagination of what a reality outside of what currently exists could look like.

"In its mission to advance the promise of equality and justice for all, LDF’s work could not be ‘visionary’ without finding joy in the hope of tomorrow – a transformative imagination of what a reality outside of what currently exists could look like."

Examining the Enduring Presence of Black Joy

Black joy is an essential part of the complete story of Black people in their fight for dignity and reclamation. In her meditation on Black joy, community organizer and activist Miracle Jones explained the “indescribable joy that comes from being able to live and thrive despite all of the obstacles and barriers that come with living in anti-Blackness.” Kleaver Cruz of the Black Joy Project described Black joy as “an act of resistance” in actively choosing pleasure in the face of pain and trauma. Andrea Walls, the multidisciplinary artist behind the Museum of Black Joy, emphasized its power and prevailing, eternal beauty: “the way they’ve arranged the history of Black people in America — it hasn’t centered joy. But we’ve always lived it.”

These vibrant descriptions of joy illustrate moments of strength, love, and power within Black communities — found in music, celebration, family, friends, community, worship, food, art, and laughter.

Described by LDF as a radical act critical to uplifting racial equality, in many ways this joy exemplifies the resilience and fortitude of Black communities. Within the ongoing fight for racial justice, Black people deserve the right not just to exist, but to thrive — not just to live, but to experience life at its fullest potential.

“The freedom to experience joy has always been relevant to LDF’s legacy. Having equal opportunities to get an education, being able to pursue your wildest dreams, that absolutely ties into Black joy,” says LDF Senior Counsel Michaele Turnage Young, who works on education cases, including those related to hair discrimination and race-conscious admissions, in a recent interview with LDF. “And, more than that, being able to walk into a space as your full self and not needing to self-censor because you’re concerned about how fully expressing yourself — for example, wearing your natural hair — may affect the opportunities that are afforded to you. That all ties into Black joy. Our work is really in pursuit of that goal.”

Turnage Young continues, “Black joy is the unfettered ability to go and enjoy all of the good things about life. And it really is so important. It’s important that people be able to experience all of the wonderful things about life freely, without hesitation.”

Attorneys George E. C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit, Jr. in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after the Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. (Photo via Getty)
Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nickie on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court after the court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. (Photo via Getty)

A Historic Case Study: The Pursuit of Justice and Joy in the Fight to End Segregation

With a transformative vision, civil rights advocates have united in the fight for racial justice throughout history, fueled by a collective power in imagining what the future could possibly hold. In its first two decades, LDF and co-counsel’s coordinated legal strategy challenging segregation, particularly in education, serves as a critical example of this work — achieved through the collective efforts of attorneys, staff, clients, allies, advocates, and supporters.

The organization’s landmark victory in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 outlawed state-sponsored segregation in public schools and launched a new era in public education in the United States. Following Brown, LDF pursued numerous desegregation cases to enforce Brown’s promise. These cases included Brown II in 1955, which secured a subsequent win that compelled school districts to implement school desegregation plans. In a period that followed, these court rulings were often met with severe backlash, leading to schools and school systems being shut down in an effort to block desegregation — and to white segregationists inciting violence, terror, and intimidation against Black communities.

Within these moments of pushback and significant conflict, however, joy still appeared: through hands grasped in anthems sung during civil rights marches, home-cooked meals shared during community gatherings, dreams relentlessly fought to be realized, and a vibrant vision uplifted for the future. In 1968, a third decision on an LDF case, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, significantly furthered desegregation efforts as school districts across the nation were required to comply with the Supreme Court’s desegregation mandate.

At 10 years old, Charles Conrad Green, now 64, was the youngest plaintiff in the Green v. County School Board case. Green speaks today of the effect that the desegregation case had on his ability to live fully, freely, and joyfully.  

“As an instructor and teacher in Richmond City Schools for 35 years, my father knew the school system’s rights and wrongs. When he challenged the [parent-teacher association] and the school system, I think my father’s thought process to put me on the case was that it might take a while, and we need to have somebody still around when [the court ruling] comes to fruition,” Green tells LDF in an interview. “The case went from there [the county] to the state [of Virginia], and, eventually, to the Supreme Court. I’m not sure that was the intent when this whole thing started. But we’re also blessed that it went that far.”

Green describes his role in the case over the years as a “transformation.” Inspired by the case as well as both of his parents’ backgrounds as educators, Green would go on to pursue a fulfilling career in education, teaching, and coaching youth “to never stop learning”.

“As a child, I really didn’t have much of a clue on the political side and [the] racial injustice side of things. I [was] just a young man, in elementary and middle school … and my colleagues, my classmates at the time probably had no clue what was going on,” Green says. “But as I got older and became a lifelong and retired educator and high school teacher, it became more prominent and more important the longer and further the years went back. Over the years, I’ve come to better understand [my role in the case], claim it, and be quite proud of it as folks recognized the importance of its impact, not so much in New Kent County, but all over.”

Green describes the fight for racial justice as a “rollercoaster of ups and downs” that joy acts to stabilize.

“The joy is in recognizing there is a problem and continuing to focus on standing up and doing something about it. The joy keeps our struggle moving forward. Without being aware of our joy, we can become complacent and comfortable with the status quo. 55 years later, I’d say, that joy still plays a role. We’re still held to a different standard, and we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Charles Conrad Green with Henry L. Marsh III. Marsh represented Green in Green v. County School Board in 1968. (Photo courtesy of Charles Conrad Green)
Roadside marker at New Kent High School in honor of Green v. County School Board. (Photo Courtesy of Charles Conrad Green)

In 1951, three years before Brown, LDF also represented five Black law students in McKissick v. Carmichael, petitioning for their admission to the then-segregated University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Law. In a momentous decision, the court ruled in their favor, and Rev. James R. Walker, Jr. and other plaintiffs would go on to become the first Black students to attend UNC. Yet, under its exclusionary policies, UNC continued to deny admission to Black students in its undergraduate program. It was not until 1955, after Brown and subsequent federal court rulings, that the institution finally eliminated its segregation policy.

Pat Youmans, 71, Walker’s daughter, describes the enduring effect that the case had on her experience of joy in a recent conversation with LDF.

“[The case] didn’t have an immediate impact on my life as a young child. However, the results of the case and the impact [on] my father and his own self-worth played a role in forming my self-worth, and understanding my rights, in particular. And, of course, believing that I can do and be anything that I want to be in life,” Youmans tells LDF.

As one of the first Black students at UNC School of Law, Walker played an integral role in desegregation efforts, bravely speaking out in the face of injustices and leading student protests across the campus. After graduating in 1952, Walker would go on to become a prominent civil rights attorney in North Carolina and led work on critical issues throughout the state, including voter registration expansion and school integration. Youmans, inspired by her father’s work, would also go on to become a civil rights advocate in both her personal and professional lives.

She describes self-worth as essential to the experience of Black joy.

“I feel personal joy when I’m able to make a difference in the lives of others and can be an advocate for their rights. And I can instill a sense of hope and pride in a person, especially someone who’s feeling hopeless and helpless. And what I had to say to them or share with them, changes their trajectory of how they see themselves. That gives me joy.”

“From an early age, Black children need to continually be reminded that there is a reason to have joy, and that, in spite of their circumstances, they have a hand in creating their own destiny and they do have a voice,” Youmans adds. “Through this work and our fight for Black rights and Black joy, my dad’s legacy lives on. We continue to make a difference.

Family of Rev. James R. Walker, Jr. at the kickoff event for the Rev. James R. Walker Portrait Fund at UNC Chapel Hill. LDF founder Thurgood Marshall represented Rev. Walker and fellow students in the case that desegregated UNC in 1952. Walker was one of the first five Black students to attend UNC and graduate from UNC’s law school. (Photo Courtesy of Pat Youmans)
Civil rights attorney and LDF client Rev. James R. Walker, Jr. (Photo courtesy of Pat Youmans)

Living Freely, Living Fully: Reflecting on Black Joy in the Current Moment

Today, at every cornerstone of civil rights work, the fight for Black people to actively live as their fullest selves continues. Across generations, in centering celebration despite trauma, recognition despite mistreatment, and happiness despite pain, Black communities have continued to uplift joy in both living the present and envisioning the future.  

From challenging natural hair discrimination that threatens Black people’s professional opportunities and their ability to express themselves to furthering equal access to education, LDF and the broader civil rights community not only push this vision forward — they cultivate others’ abilities to do so within their lives and communities.

“I think that’s a part of LDF’s legacy — going into a community, working to further equal opportunity — and actually inspiring others to do the same. And the process repeats itself,” says Turnage Young.

In recognition and celebration of its 83rd anniversary, young LDF clients, who serve as powerful advocates in the present and future fight for racial justice and equality, took some time to reflect on the significance of Black joy in civil rights work today.

Photo by Juanell Core of J.Core Photography for LDF

De'Andre Arnold

“Black joy — of course it’s joy, but I think it’s intertwined with what makes Black people, Black people. I think Black joy gives us a chance to be happy about what makes us, us. I feel like as society has gone on, we’re always a subject for scrutiny in the sort of way that we choose to live our lives no matter how that is. I think this case really speaks to the aspect of scrutiny because when you really boil down the situation, all it was — was me and my cousin, as well as many people across the country — being who we are [by donning our natural hair]. We need to take every opportunity we can not only to fight against discrimination, but to enjoy ourselves for who we are.”

Challenging Hair Discrimination

Photo by Juanell Core of J.Core Photography for LDF

Kaden Bradford

“Black joy means expressing African American culture unapologetically; being able to express where you’ve come from [and] your roots. It’s important to me because I feel like it’s very easy to almost lose our culture in some way in order to conform, to feel safer, or to try to fit in with everyone else. In Black culture, there are many different ways we express ourselves through our natural hair. I express myself through [locs], and this is how I’m choosing to express my Black joy and my Black culture. There’s been a lot of trials and tribulations throughout this entire case, but the main thing I want everyone to know is that it’s okay to express yourself, no matter how many people tell you that it’s not okay. If you’re met with pushback, go past it, keep going, and stay true to yourself.”

Challenging Hair Discrimination

Photo Courtesy of Latoya Beecham
Kylan Tatum (Photo by Max Larkin for WBUR)

LaToya Beecham

“Personally, for me, Black joy is something that is essential — you need it in your life. As a person of color … there are so many obstacles designed to drag you down. I see Black joy as those spaces where you can go, you can be yourself, and you can be unapologetically Black. And also, having people around you that understand what you’re going through, and are willing to uplift you.

When it comes to Teens Take Charge [a public school student-led organization], it was that space where I could just be me, be understood, and know that we’re all coming from different walks of life, but yet, we all have these different parts of our lives that overlap. And being able to find joy in those moments and being able to reside in our identity in being Black, and what that means, and how we express it. We are advocating against segregation inside our schools and also for just being able to go to school and know that you won’t be discriminated against. I think being able to eliminate that for future generations is huge. Yes, there is something we can do. Yes, we’re young, but our voices matter. And what we have to say matters. And we can take those steps to get there. So just being able to know that you have the power to do that. And you want to do it for those who are going to come after you, and also do it for yourself.”

Expanding Access for Black and Latinx Students to NYC Specialized High Schools

Kylan Tatum

“I think to me, Black joy at its core means resistance in an anti-Black world. And that resistance can either be more explicitly political, or it can really just mean living when we weren’t meant to survive or laughing when we weren’t meant to laugh and dreaming when we weren’t meant to dream. Black joy really recognizes the power and resistance that can come from seeking joy while Black. And it also recognizes the power and the resistance that comes from confronting anti-Black systems by refusing to die and daring to dream.

Sometimes I experience joy through the act of living. And other times, I experience it through … [advocacy]. I would say the organizing around the SFFA v. Harvard case has definitely been more on the latter side. I think it’s been really important to share my multiracial, multiethnic, and multinational perspectives, both on a local stage at Harvard and also on a national stage. I think for me, that’s been very rewarding to combat a lot of the misconceptions around this case, and also to be able to share my story and a story that I think is relatively underrepresented in these discussions. And beyond that, I’ve also gained so much joy from the amazing people that I’ve gotten to work with, whether that be the other student organizers or the LDF team. I’ve met so many different but also like-minded people who are committed to racial justice, and in a way that’s really given me a lot of hope for the future again.”

Protecting Race-conscious admissions

Photo by Norah Ostin

Michael Omole

Black joy is both a form of reparation and comfort on college campuses. As a group that was denied equal access to higher education through the majority of our nation’s history, Black students are some of those that value the opportunities it provides the most. There’s no reason that experience should also be lonely or esoteric, which is why Black joy is crucial. Black joy is often found in community, where people can come together to share stories, laughs, and struggles, which helps the rigors of higher education get just a bit easier to manage. As Vice President of the Black Students Association, I have seen this firsthand, and I know that striking down affirmative action and shrinking that community will make the student experience so much less vibrant.”

Protecting Race-conscious admissions

Photo by Amy Rolle

Raven Rolle

“A lot of times, when people want to focus on Black stories, they focus on the traumatic things. And I think we have enough of that. Obviously, it’s important to educate people about those things. And that’s why I joined SARC [the Southlake Antiracism Coalition, a public school student-led organization] And that’s a big part of our mission at SARC. But it’s also important to focus on the things that make us happy. For me, being an advocate for these children is definitely a part of my experience of Black joy. A general message to Black people, I think, is to allow yourself to feel that joy. When there are so many bad things happening to our people constantly, all day, every day, it’s easy to get caught up in that and forget that you’re allowed to feel joy. So let yourself be free. Sometimes, you know, let yourself have those joyous moments.”

Fighting Racial Discrimination in Southlake, TX Schools

Envisioning the Future: Cultivating Black Joy in the Road Ahead

Within LDF’s legacy and amid the long, storied histories of countless civil rights advocates fighting for racial justice in the United States, joy is ever-present. It exists in moments, both large and small, ordinary and remarkable, that allow Black people to live as themselves. It exists in real time, in honoring the past, and in visualizing the future. It lies deep within and warmly surrounds us, playing a close witness in both trial and triumph. It is echoed through laughter, shared in tradition, and felt in community. It is heard within the rallying calls for transparency and accountability, and reverberated within spirited songs, sermons, and debates about what can become.

“We will vote, we will protest, we will tell the truth. We will litigate, we will educate, and we will empower. We have the opportunity to shape this country to be a place that allows all of us to thrive.”

LDF’s President and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson spoke these words as she began her tenure at the organization’s helm in March 2022. As LDF recognizes its 83rd anniversary, Nelson’s words epitomize the organization’s unyielding commitment to advancing racial justice and equality to empower Black people to live joyfully as their full selves.

In its lasting presence, we must relentlessly pursue, honor, and celebrate Black joy. As we continue to fight for racial justice and equality for all, through cultivating joy in the present and future, we can continue to test the bounds of what is possible.

Published March 24, 2023

“We will vote, we will protest, we will tell the truth. We will litigate, we will educate, and we will empower. We have the opportunity to shape this country to be a place that allows all of us to thrive.”

- Janai Nelson

Janai Nelson speaks at LDF's From "Selma to SCOTUS" panel at Edmundite Missions during the 2023 Selma Jubilee Weekend. (Photo by Melissa Golden for LDF)