The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) pays tribute to Jacqueline A. Berrien, an extraordinary and highly accomplished civil rights lawyer, the 14th Chair of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2010-2014), and a beloved member of the LDF family and the broader civil rights community.
Jacqueline Berrien attended school in her native Washington, D.C. and, in her senior year in high school, worked as clerk-typist for the federal government. Jackie, as she was affectionately called, graduated from Oberlin College with High Honors in Government and a second degree in English. She went on to Harvard Law School, where she served as a General Editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. Upon graduating from Harvard, she clerked for the Honorable U.W. Clemon, the first African-American U.S. District Court judge, in Birmingham, Alabama. Early in her legal career, Jackie earned her stripes as a civil rights lawyer at the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and with the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRUL) in Washington, D.C., litigating cases involving educational equity, women’s rights, public benefits, fair housing, and health policy.
While at the ACLU, Jackie met LDF’s current President and Director-Counsel, Sherrilyn Ifill. They formed a close bond as friends and confidantes that would last for nearly thirty years. “There are few people who embody the pillars of the civil rights struggle as Jacqueline Berrien did. The talent, dedication, and humility with which she carried out her efforts to enforce our country’s equal employment, voting rights, and access to education laws should serve as beacons for all who do this work,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF.
In 1984 Jackie left LCCRUL to begin what would become a distinguished career of service and leadership at LDF.
Jackie first came to work at LDF in 1986 as a summer intern supported by the Cora Warren Fellowship while she was a student at Harvard. Jackie returned to LDF in 1994 following her stints as a lawyer for the ACLU and LCCRUL, to join the staff as an Assistant Counsel. Jackie’s early career at LDF included litigation in some of the organization’s preeminent voting rights and desegregation cases. One of Jackie’s cases was Manning v. School Board of Hillsborough County, Florida, a federal case lasting for over forty years that forced Hillsborough County to dismantle a segregated school system and implement a plan to maintain racial balance in individual schools.
In the Supreme Court case of Chisolm v. Roemer, Jackie fought in federal court on behalf of LDF’s clients to establish that an amendment to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 applied to judicial elections. The voting method used in Orleans Parish, Louisiana, which diluted the Black vote, had diminished the ability of Orleans residents to elect the candidates of their choice for Supreme Court judgeships. Jackie also litigated, among other cases, Cromartie v. Hunt, the follow-up case to Shaw v. Reno, which established the unconstitutionality of the redrawn boundary of the 12th district of North Carolina on the grounds of political gerrymandering; and Goosby v. Town of Hempstead, a case that challenged the “at large” voting system that diminished Black voting power in Hempstead, New York. In 1997, a federal judge ordered the Town of Hempstead to replace its at large voting system with six geographically distinct districts.
Jackie also represented African-American parents and children in school desegregation litigation. In Manning v. Hillsborough County School Board, Jackie lead a suit that was long considered one of the most successful integration cases before a federal magistrate judge prematurely held that the system had achieved unitary status. Jackie appealed that decision all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States where the petition for certiorari was denied.
A fierce and fastidious advocate, Jackie soon became a renowned lawyer in the voting rights arena and, ultimately, was appointed by LDF’s fourth President and Director-Counsel Elaine Jones to lead LDF’s Political Participation Group as its Director. In that position, Jackie coordinated all of LDF’s work in the area of voting rights and political participation, and represented African-American voters in proceedings before the United States Supreme Court, the United States Courts of Appeals, and the United States District Courts. Her approach to problem-solving was extremely collaborative. She worked closely with national organizations and local groups around the country, including co-founding the New York Voting Rights Consortium and serving on national coalitions to advance and protect voting rights.
One of the last cases she litigated before taking a hiatus from LDF to work at the Ford Foundation was NAACP v. Harris, a challenge on behalf of African-American and Haitian-American voters to voter suppression tactics and election administration irregularities in the Florida 2000 general elections.
In 2004, shortly after assuming the post as LDF’s fifth President and Director-Counsel, Theodore “Ted” Shaw asked Jackie to return to LDF for a third time—this time to lead LDF by his side in the second most senior position at the organization. “Jackie was extraordinary,” said Ted Shaw, “I could not have done it without her.” As Associate Director-Counsel, Jackie was instrumental in guiding LDF’s litigation, policy, strategic vision, and operations until 2009. One of her crowning moments was to witness the signing of the reauthorized Voting Rights Act of 1965 at the White House. Jackie, along with her voting colleagues at LDF, were instrumental in creating and defending the record in the 2006 reauthorization.
Over the course of her tenures at LDF, Jackie worked alongside four Directors-Counsel: Julius Chambers , Elaine Jones, John Payton, and Ted Shaw. Jackie was an admired manager who endeared others to her and strove to motivate her team. Jackie brought her personal experiences into her work, including childhood piano lessons, singing in ensemble, and musical performances which, she said, taught her how to work well in groups and emphasize the importance balance in her life. Jackie maintained close ties with her LDF family well after her departure from LDF and counted many within the LDF community as dear, personal friends. “Jackie was a mentor and sister-in-arms from the moment we met,” said LDF Associate Director-Counsel Janai Nelson, “Her immense grace, light, and legal acumen exemplify the very best of LDF and will be sorely missed.”
From 2001 to 2004, Jackie served as a Program Officer for the Ford Foundation’s Peace and Social Justice Program where she administered more than $13 million in grants to promote greater political participation by underrepresented groups and remove barriers to civic engagement. During her tenure with the Ford Foundation, Berrien also co-chaired the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation, a philanthropic affinity group affiliated with the Council on Foundations.
In her personal life, Jackie devoted herself to service and mentorship. Since 1996, Jackie was a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta– the 96-year-old public service sorority for African-American women. Jackie was active in her communities of faith, including Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, where she sang in the church choir, and Michigan Park Christian Church in Washington, D.C. Jackie also served on the Board of Trustees of her alma mater, Oberlin College. “She was a wonderful board member and alum, always ready to help Oberlin students and alumni,” said Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov. “I will miss her as a friend and as a colleague.” In addition, Jackie was a member of numerous civic and community organizations.
In July 2009, Jackie was appointed the 14th Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). During her term as EEOC Chair, Jackie oversaw the agency’s 53 offices in the United States and Puerto Rico, including approximately 2,200 employees, and an annual budget of more than $360 million. Jackie worked steadfastly to strengthen the enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act through agency guidance, litigation, and advocacy. Jackie’s poise, vision, and expertise were apparent in her frequent testimony to Congress on important issues relating to diversity, civil rights, and best practices in the workplace.
The agency’s major achievements during Jackie’s term included adopting the first-ever regulations implementing the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act; and putting into place a new strategic plan as well as the agency’s first Strategic Enforcement Plan. In reference to the organization’s new direction, Jackie said in a recent interview, “I believe this renewed focus grows out of the unwavering equality for all that inspired Dr. King and many other people who were responsible for the creation of the EEOC. We have all been entrusted to carry that work forward.”
Jackie’s other achievements at the EEOC include leading the agency in reducing its inventory of unresolved discrimination charges by approximately 20 percent and recovering a record amount of monetary relief for discrimination plaintiffs through administrative enforcement. Finally, under Jackie’s leadership, the EEOC won the largest award under the American with Disabilities Act and largest award in the agency’s history—$240 million for intellectually disabled men in EEOC v. Hill Country Farms.
During her career, Jackie published a number of scholarly writings on issues of gender and racial discrimination. In recent years, Jackie served as an Adjunct Professor at Harvard Law School and New York Law School. In 2011, she was named a Leading Black Woman in Public Service by TheRoot.com. She was also included in the “Power 100” List of the Nation’s Most Influential Minority Attorneys. She received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Northeastern University in 2012.
Jackie is survived by her husband Peter Williams, Executive Vice President of Programs for the NAACP and partner of 28 years. Jackie and Peter shared an abiding commitment to racial justice and to each other. They worked together as a team to build a strong community ties and enjoyed shared friendships in many circles. Jackie is also survived by a brother, brothers-in-law, and beloved nieces and nephews.
“Jackie’s leadership and passion for ensuring everyone gets a fair chance to succeed in the workplace has changed our country for the better. She spent her entire career fighting to give voice to underrepresented communities – from her work at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to her advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union. At the EEOC, she fought hard every day to make real our nation’s promise of equal opportunity for all. She injected new life into the EEOC with new ideas and strategies that helped refocus the commission on its enduring mission – protecting the most fundamental rights of all Americans.” – President Barack Obama
“As a member of the Board and as co-chair of the Board, I was privileged to know and respect Jackie both as a person and as an extraordinarily talented Civil Rights attorney. She was a remarkable person whose devotion to accomplishing equality was unmatched. When Jackie left LDF it left a huge hole in our organization. We will all miss her and her wise counsel enormously.” – David Mills, LDF Board Co-Chair
“Jacqueline Berrien’s work with NAACP LDF and as EEOC chair has been invaluable. Brooklynites & Americans alike will remember her leadership.” – NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio
“[Jackie] served this country and its people with brilliance, determination and grace. Our nation has lost a great champion in Jackie and she will be sorely missed. I will miss her strong voice and upbeat personality.” – Anthony Foxx, Secretary of the Department of Transportation
“Jackie gave her heart and soul to the cause of civil rights and racial justice. I am eternally grateful for her wisdom, sincerity, and dedication to advancing the lives of the most marginalized in our society. There are just no words to adequately express the unique spirit we have lost.” – Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel
“Jackie Berrien was a giant in the field of contemporary civil rights enforcement and was deeply committed to making our democracy a better place for everyone. Guided by her integrity and the power of her convictions, she served as a powerful voice for the voiceless and a passionate advocate on behalf of marginalized people across our country. She was a beacon of light who dedicated her life to promoting justice and equality. Simply put, Jackie helped make our world a better place.” – President and Executive Director Kristen Clarke, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
“Jacqueline epitomized the ‘Lady of Justice’ throughout her life as a warrior for justice, equality and workplace fairness for all people. She was fearless in her pursuit of racial, gender and social justice for communities of color, women and underserved communities that is irreplaceable…We will miss her on the battlefield for justice and even more so, we will miss her radiant smile that would light up a room and warm your heart.” – Melanie Campbell, Black Women’s Roundtable
“Berrien’s contributions to the legal and civil rights community have been invaluable. We are greatly appreciative of her service, and her active involvement with the NBA.” – National Bar Association