In the late 1960s, the United States was enjoying a new birth of freedom. Earlier in the decade, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the nation had at last swept away the state-sanctioned segregation and disenfranchisement of Black citizens that had prevailed in the South since the end of Reconstruction.

But significant challenges remained, not least among them a severe shortage of Black lawyers in the South. According to a 1973 report published by the Carnegie Corporation, there were only 34 Black lawyers practicing in the entire state of Georgia in 1969. In Alabama, the number was just 20; in Mississippi, nine. The report estimated that the entire American South—comprising some 13 million Black Americans—was served by only a few hundred Black attorneys.  Per a 1970 LDF memo, the then-president of the American Bar Association further underscored the stark disparity, noting that only one Black lawyer was available for every 37,000 Black Americans.

The consequences of this shortage were enormous. Few southern white lawyers were willing to accept civil rights cases, meaning, as the Carnegie report put it, “that many legal rights newly won in the civil rights movement … existed only on the statute books.” As the 1970s began, the crisis in representation showed few signs of easing, with Black students staying away from law school, especially in the South.

A 1970 proposal to the LDF Board outlining what would become the Earl Warren Legal Training Program

In an effort to address this critical gap, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) established the Earl Warren Legal Training Program, which was founded 45 years ago today with funding from the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations. Originally established as a fellowship for Black students in Southern law schools, the program has evolved to become the Earl Warren Scholarship—dedicated to supporting any American law student who has demonstrated a special devotion to working for racial justice. 

The program began auspiciously. Its first two participants were Marian Wright Edelman, who would go on to found the Children’s Defense Fund, and Julius Chambers, who became LDF’s third Director-Counsel. In its 1973 report, the Carnegie Foundation found that the program had an immediate impact, significantly expanding the number of Black law students in Southern law schools, and quadrupling the size of the Black Mississippi bar between 1969 and 1973.

In the decades since its founding, the Earl Warren Training Program has helped hundreds of talented young law students obtain the resources they need to complete their educations and to begin their careers in civil rights law. Among the program’s distinguished alumni are Congressman James Clyburn, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and the Honorable David Coar, a former Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

On May 2, 1972, LDF hosted a banquet in New York to launch the Earl Warren Training Program. The featured speaker was the fellowship’s namesake, former Governor of California and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren. In his remarks that evening, Justice Warren said, “There are courtrooms in this country where black people and other minority groups are treated without any dignity whatsoever. … Justice cannot be served in an atmosphere of that kind. It represents second class citizenship at its worst. If people are not treated with dignity by judges, lawyers, and attachés in the courtroom, they can never expect justice.”

Almost half a century later, far too many Black Americans and other minorities still find themselves relegated to second-class citizenship by our nation’s justice system. But through the Earl Warren Scholarship program, LDF has committed itself to investing in the next generation of civil rights lawyers, ensuring that the progress of the past will be expanded in the future.

To learn more about the Earl Warren Scholarship, click here.