Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by Black Americans and a time to pay tribute to the extraordinary and critical role African Americans have played in shaping U.S. history.
Over the next four weeks, we will be reflecting on LDF’s contribution to Black history by featuring several of our landmark civil rights cases and highlighting current core practice areas – and the strong links between the past and the present. We are living in challenging times when it comes to equal access to the ballot box, educational opportunities, policing reform, and economic justice. Discrimination, bias and racial inequality persist, yet our hard-fought legal victories over the past eight decades serve as blueprints for future battles. Even when the odds were stacked against us, our commitment to equal justice under law not only persevered, but strengthened.
“The process of democracy is one of change. Our laws are not frozen into immutable form; they are constantly in the process of revision in response to the needs of a changing society.”
LDF has been a pioneer in the struggle to secure and protect the voting rights of all Americans. Our litigation surrounding equal access to the ballot is considered the gold standard upon which to model success. Smith v. Allwright (1944) was one such case – a victory which single-handedly changed the course of history. LDF’s first Director-Counsel, Thurgood Marshall, gained a ruling from the Supreme Court signaling that Texas’s refusal to grant African Americans the right to vote was unconstitutional. Marshall himself considered this win the greatest of his longstanding career. Following the decision, the number of Southern blacks registered to vote rose to between 700,000 and 800,000 by 1948 and then to one million by 1952. However, with the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other discriminatory measures, Southern states found a way to forcefully and effectively disenfranchise African Americans. It would take the future passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 before most Blacks in the South could be registered to vote.
“The ballot is the democratic system’s coin of the realm. To condition its exercise on support of the established order is to debase that currency beyond recognition.”
Combating voter discrimination and advocating for an inclusive democracy remains a cornerstone of LDF’s work today. Over fifty years after the passage of the VRA, the Supreme Court, in the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. In the wake of that decision voter suppression efforts ran rampant. We have thoroughly documented evidence that millions of minority voters have been subjected to voter suppression schemes in states across the country and are monitoring changes to voting procedures on an ongoing basis. We continue to stress the importance of political participation, whether it be current litigation against the strictest photo ID law in the country or providing critical election information in states across the country through our Prepared to Vote campaign. LDF seeks to ensure equality in the political process, as we have done for over 75 years.
Read LDF Founder Thurgood Marshall’s dissenting opinion in Richardson v. Ramirez, a 1974 Supreme Court case which held that convicted felons could be barred from voting without violating the Fourteenth Amendment.
Assistant Counsel Deuel Ross and Fried Frank Fellow Natasha Merle hosted a Facebook Live Q&A on voting rights cases, including Smith v. Allwright and LDF’s current cases in Texas and Alabama. Watch part 1 and 2 of their informative session!
The Supreme Court declared the longstanding doctrine “separate but equal” unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), one of the most important and celebrated legal cases in American history. The ruling followed an arduous, spirited, and inspired legal strategy pioneered by Charles Hamilton Houston: taking aim at segregation and the pernicious precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson through a series of challenges throughout the country.
Houston died in 1950, so did not live to see the fruit of his efforts, but his protégée Thurgood Marshall continued to carry the torch, litigating Brown, a coordinated effort which linked five lawsuits against school districts in Kansas, South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Among the brilliant legal team put together by Thurgood Marshall was LDF’s future second Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg and Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman appointed as a federal judge.
Marshall and the LDF team won a unanimous victory in front of the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954, but the work of integration was far from over., Resistance to integration was strong and often violent in the decades that followed. In Little Rock, Arkansas, for instance, nine students were initially prevented from entering Little Rock Central High School by the Governor of Arkansas, leading President Dwight D. Eisenhower and federal troops to intervene. LDF filed subsequent lawsuits in hundreds of school districts across the United States to speed integration, including notable victories in Green v. Country School Board (1968) and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971).
“Brown continues to stand for Americans’ determination to live up to the ideals of their Constitution and for the proposition that our Supreme Court can be a catalyst for fundamental change.”
However, even in 2017, the work of Brown is far from finished. Public school children are more racially isolated now than at any point in the past 40 years. Over 200 school desegregation cases remain open on federal court dockets; LDF alone has nearly 100 of them. We continue to defend the principles so clearly and effectively articulated more than 60 years ago in Brown v. Board. We’re opposing the Gardendale City School Board’s efforts to stymie the desegregation of Jefferson County, Alabama schools, fighting to ensure racial integration and improve the educational quality for St. James Parish, Louisiana schools, and helping to preserve the well-established precedent affirming the right of universities to pursue racial diversity as part of their educational mission (Fisher v. UT Austin). As part of our educational policy work, LDF is also a member of The Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national coalition of over 100 organizations in 27 states dedicated to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and working to ensure children are treated with dignity and fairness in schools.
“The only way I can make sure of my own liberty of action and freedom to agitate for what I believe to be right, is to fight for the liberty of action and freedom to agitate for every man.”
Charles Hamilton Houston
Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark case, crucial turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and a model for future litigation in bringing about societal change. Most of all, it gave hope to millions of Americans in seeing the dream of equal education realized. LDF has always been a leader in advocating for the closing of achievement gaps and reducing racial disparities in schools. We are involved in dozens of school desegregation cases nationwide and will continue to fight for safe, inclusive, and equal high quality education for African American students, thus improving the educational climate for all.
LDF has been a leader in challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty since its very founding. In our landmark 1972 case, Furman v. Georgia, we won the country’s first and only nationwide halt to executions when the Supreme Court struck down capital punishment in a memorable 5-4 decision. This ruling held that the death penalty violated the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment and therefore forced states to rethink their laws going forward to ensure that the death penalty would not be administered in a discriminatory manner. Unfortunately, this decision proved to be only temporary as Gregg v. Georgia (1976) reinstated its acceptance and use. In 1987, LDF stood before the Supreme Court once again to present compelling evidence proving discrimination had contaminated the capital punishment system in McCleskey v. Kemp. Regrettably, the justices dismissed the significance of well-documented racial disparities and decided they were not sufficient in overturning the death penalty sentence.
LDF has not stopped fighting against systemic racial bias in the courts since the troubling outcome of McCleskey v. Kemp. One of our most recent and high profile cases, Buck v. Davis, is an ongoing effort to grant Texas death row inmate Duane Buck, whose death sentence is a blatant product of racial discrimination, a new and fair sentencing hearing. In order to hand down a death sentence in Texas, the jury must conclude that the defendant is likely to commit future violent acts. Mr. Buck’s own attorney introduced testimony in the sentencing phase of his trial that he was more likely to be dangerous solely because he is Black. Christina Swarns, LDF’s Director of Litigation and one of the few African-American woman who have argued before the Supreme Court, laid out a powerful case this past October explaining why the rule of law demands a new sentencing hearing for Mr. Buck – one that is free from racial bias. Listen to her oral argument.
Read about the history of LDF and the death penalty in this extensive New Yorker piece, Racial Discrimination and Capital Punishment: The Indefensible Death Sentence of Duane Buck.
“Whatever your views about the death penalty, we simply cannot accept this state of affairs. We must do something to improve the quality of representation at the trial stage. Only then can we begin to ensure that persons convicted of capital crimes have a fair opportunity to present a defense.”
LDF remains at the forefront of the death penalty conversation today. We were a part of a successful campaign that convinced the Supreme Court to narrow its scope by eliminating capital punishment for juveniles and we will continue to work to ensure that our nation’s criminal justice laws are administered equally and fairly. Watch our Facebook Live Q&A session with Director of Litigtaion Christina Swarns and Deputy Director of Litigation Jin Hee Yee on LDF’s longstanding fight against systemic racial bias in the criminal justice system, which includes litigating cases involving jury discrimination and ineffective assistance of counsel.
The United States is undeniably in a national policing crisis. Over the last several years, many unarmed African-Americans, including Philando Castile of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Terrence Crutcher of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York, Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, and Natasha McKenna of Fairfax, Virginia, have lost their lives at the hands of police officers. In many cases the officers were not prosecuted sending a message that those who have taken an oath to protect and serve may kill civilians with impunity. These recent, relentless, police-involved assaults and killings of people of color, many captured in graphic detail in cell phone videos or streamed live in real time on social media, has inspired a movement of young activists, captured the attention of the media and elected officials, and generated calls for a fundamental change in policing. LDF has responded by launching its Race and Policing Reform Campaign.
As part of our Race and Policing Reform Campaign, our organizing team attempts to build the capacity of communities impacted by police violence around the country. They work with folks to find creative and effective ways to build the ability to prevent racially discriminatory policing. They also provide support for families of who have lost loved ones due to police-involved violence.
Watch our final Facebook Live in honor of Black History Month featuring LDF community organizers Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele and Marquis Jenkins discussing our policing reform campaign and organizing work!