The NAACP Legal Defense Fund hosted its 30th annual National Equal Justice Award Dinner, The Power of Now, on Wednesday, November 2nd at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York City. The dinner was held the week before the first presidential election in fifty years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The powerful evening celebrated the Power of Now, examining not only voting rights but a broad array of civil rights issues including policing reform, equality in education, and economic justice.
The evening both celebrated how far we have come and reminded the audience of the work we must continue to do together to realize the goal of a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all. NEJAD is a highlight on the civil rights calendar, bringing together a vibrant mix of civil rights leaders and pioneers, current and former LDF staff and board members, philanthropists, lawyers, corporate leaders, elected officials, and more. Dinner guests also enjoyed an exclusive performance by Leslie Odom, Jr., a Tony Award-winning cast member of the critically acclaimed and enormously popular Broadway production, Hamilton. Chaired by Gwen Adolph, Judith Byrd and Robin Coles with Honorary Chair Ted Wells, NEJAD 2016 was a resounding success.
The 30th Annual National Equal Justice Award Dinner was emceed by the incomparable Joy Ann Reid and honored long-time LDF champions. Former LDF President and Director-Counsel Elaine R. Jones received the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor bestowed by LDF, for her decades of service to the organization, starting as a young lawyer and working her way to becoming the first woman to be President and Director-Counsel. During her storied career as a civil rights litigator, she defended death row inmates, argued numerous employment discrimination cases, including class actions against some of the nation’s largest employers, and became one of the few African-American women to argue before the Supreme Court. Justice Thurgood Marshall’s wife and LDF board member Mrs. Cecilia Marshall joined current LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill on the stage to present the inimitable Elaine Jones with her award. Elaine was surprised with tributes from Vernon Jordan, and President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
LDF board member, former clerk to LDF founder Justice Thurgood Marshall, and now Chairman and Managing Partner of Global Infrastructure Partners, Bayo Ogunlesi was honored with the National Equal Justice Award for his work on behalf of LDF and civil rights. A Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School graduate, Ogunlesi served as a law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall in the Supreme Court during the 1980 term.
International law firm, Norton Rose Fulbright was named 2016 law firm of the year. Their history with LDF spans decades, most recently involving their critical help in in Fisher v. UT Austin II, a true victory for affirmative action. Sherrilyn Ifill noted that Norton Rose Fulbright “provided LDF invaluable help as co-counsel, and defended the principle that allows a diverse room like this to exist.”
The honorees offered stirring words, insight into history, and a glimpse of the future. Managing Partner of Global Infrastructure Partners Bayo Ogunlesi said, “Thurgood Marshall would urge us to stand up, be counted, and get involved for the fight for a better America.” Trailblazer Elaine Jones, reminded the room that “LDF is a calling,” and noted how LDF’s “history of strong leadership and support that has made all the difference these 35 years.”
LDF also mourned and saluted the lives and work of two members of the LDF family who we lost this year: former Associate Director-Counsel Jaqueline Berrien, and the successor to Thurgood Marshall, legendary second Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg. Both were honored with powerful video tributes. Ms. Berrien was a renowned lawyer who powerfully litigated for voting rights at LDF and went on to become the Chairwoman of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, fighting for equality in employment at the highest levels of government. And, of course, the legacy of Jack Greenberg has changed America. As Sherrilyn Ifill observed, “there is virtually no room in this country that Mr. Greenberg did not help.”
The dinner served as a powerful reminder of the critical work LDF has done this year, from fighting and winning critical voting rights victories in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, to providing critical support to communities in Baltimore and North Charleston as they fight for systemic changes to policing practices. Remarking on the Power of Now, the generosity of LDF’s supporters, and the profound impact of LDF’s efforts over the past year in her remarks, Sherrilyn observed that “the promise of hope, the determination of the people we represent gives us the courage to do this work. And no matter what it looks like, we are winning.”
Special thanks to our generous donors and corporate sponsors. NEJAD 2016 raised a remarkable $3 million to assist LDF in advancing its important mission.