Happy Birthday, LDF! 5 Things You May Not Know About the Nation’s Oldest Civil Rights Legal Organization

By LDF Archives

Today, March 20th 2017, we celebrate the 77th anniversary of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). To many, LDF is best known for ending school segregation through the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. LDF is also well-known for the pivotal work of its founder and first Director-Counsel, Thurgood Marshall, who subsequently became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. But did you know that LDF helped map the successful 1965 Selma to Montgomery march? Did you know that we represented Muhammad Ali? Did you know that LDF has litigated in nearly every state in the nation?

Here are five things you may not have known about LDF’s crucial role in the civil rights movement and how our history helps to ignite our current and future efforts.

  1. We have a history of community organizing. The Oscar-nominated 2017 documentary I Am Not Your Negro shows archival video footage of writer and public intellectual James Baldwin documenting the dire state of human rights for African Americans in the 1960s, especially in the Jim Crow South. June Shagaloff, who worked with Baldwin, was a social science researcher and community organizer focusing on public school desegregation at LDF from 1950–1961. Today, LDF has a team of community organizers, who as part of our Race and Policing Reform Campaign, build the capacity of communities impacted by police violence around the country. They work with people to find effective ways to prevent racially discriminatory policing and provide support for families who have lost loved ones due to police-involved violence
  2. We helped protect the Selma to Montgomery March. In 1965, LDF helped litigate and successfully secured a route for the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. LDF attorneys and co-counsel were instrumental in ensuring the march took place after police violence ended the marchers’ first attempt. In Williams v. WallaceLDF filed suit against Alabama’s then-Governor George Wallace, resulting in a court ordering federal protection for a later attempt at the march.
  3. We represented Muhammad Ali. After legendary heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali was stripped of his passport and denied a boxing license in every state after refusing to be inducted into the armed forces in 1967, LDF represented him in Ali v. Division of State Athletic Commission, N.Y.(1970) and Clay v. United States (1971). LDF successfully argued that the deprivation of a license to fight violated Ali’s 14th amendment right to equal protection of laws. These cases helped cement Ali’s stance against the Vietnam War and for social justice both in this country and overseas. LDF’s first Assistant Counsel Michael Meltsner, who represented Ali in the case that restored his boxing career, said: “When they [the NY State Athletic Commission] took away Ali’s right to box in 1967, they claimed it was because he had refused induction in the armed forces. But the state freely licensed felons, including men who had killed, raped and robbed. It was clear that the Athletic Commission sought to punish him because he was an outspoken black man and a member of the Nation of Islam.”
  4. We have supported generations of scholars. LDF’s scholarship programaims to “fill the gap between court edict and the reality of follow-through in the daily lives of citizens,” as stated in the Herbert Lehman Education Fund’s first press release in 1964. The program has provided more than $5.5 million of financial support to over 1,950 students interested in human rights and social justice. Previous recipients include Congressman James Clyburn, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Marion Wright Edelman (Founder and President, Children’s Defense Fund), the Honorable David Coar (United States District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois), Nicole Austin-Hillery (Director and Counsel of the Brennan Center for Justice (D.C.), and Julius Chambers (LDF Director-Counsel, 1984–1993).
  5. We have litigated in (almost) every state. You can use our online legal case database to search for LDF cases in a specific jurisdiction or on a particular topic. For additional research on LDF and the NAACP’s legal work from 1918 to 1968, we encourage you to consult the NAACP Legal Defense Fund records, 1915–1968, at the Library of Congress. A substantial portion of the collection at the Library of Congress was opened to the public for the first time in August 2015.