Updated on Nov. 13, 2015 with more obituaries and rememberances.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) deeply mourns the passing of former Associate Director-Counsel, Jacqueline A. Berrien, who succumbed to a brief but intense battle with cancer early this morning. Berrien was 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 civil rights community at large.
“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. “We are extremely saddened by her loss and will do our part to ensure that the institutions she led, including LDF, are imbued with her spirit.”
A tireless advocate throughout her career, Berrien brought an incomparable standard of excellence, intellect, and diligence to her work. After clerking for Hon. U.W. Clemon, the first African-American U.S. District Court judge in Birmingham, Alabama, Berrien became a staff attorney at the National Legal Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and then the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Berrien joined LDF as an Assistant Counsel in 1994. While at LDF, Berrien became a renowned voting rights lawyer and ultimately went on to lead LDF’s Political Participation Group as its director. In that position, Berrien 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. She also represented African-American parents and school children in school desegregation litigation.
Berrien left LDF in 2001 to serve as a Program Officer in 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. She returned to LDF in 2004 to serve as Associate Director-Counsel alongside its fifth President and Director-Counsel, Ted Shaw, and stewarded all of LDF’s operations.
Today, President Obama hailed Berrien, saying, “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.”
During her tenure as EEOC Chair, Berrien 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. Berrien also worked steadfastly to strengthen the enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act through agency guidance, litigation, and advocacy. The agency’s major achievements during Berrien’s term included adopting the-first ever regulations implementing the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act; developing and implementing a new strategic plan and the agency’s first Strategic Enforcement Plan; reducing inventory of unresolved discrimination charges by approximately 20 percent; and recovering a record amount of monetary relief for discrimination plaintiffs through administrative enforcement. Also, under Berrien’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 the class of intellectually disabled men in EEOC v. Hill Country Farms.
In 2011, Berrien was interviewed for the Washington Post and spoke of the leadership lessons she learned at LDF during her two tenures, working with three Directors-Counsel: Elaine Jones, Ted Shaw, and John Payton. Having a spirit of life-long learning is important, she stressed, remembering a former LDF attorney who “believed he could learn something from everybody and it’s important to never stop learning.” Berrien was an admired manager who endeared others to her and strove to motivate her team. Her unexpected passing is mourned by many former colleagues and staff.
“Jacqueline Berrien exemplified the very best of LDF as an advocate, mentor, and crusader for justice,” said Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel of LDF. “Everyone who had the pleasure of working with her was touched by her grace, poise, faith and fierce legal acumen—all of which she used in abundant service of the most marginalized communities.”
Berrien graduated from Oberlin College and Harvard Law School, where she served as a General Editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. She later served as an Adjunct Professor at Harvard Law School, as well as at New York Law School. A native of Washington, D.C., Berrien was a proud member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn and a new church home in Washington.
Berrien is survived by her husband Peter Williams, Executive Vice President of Programs for the NAACP and partner of 28 years, a brother, brothers-in-law, and beloved nieces and nephews. LDF extends its heartfelt condolences to her family and loved ones.
Services for Jacqueline Berrien will be held on Saturday, November 21, 2015, at 11:00 AM (viewing at 10 a.m.) at the
Michigan Park Christian Church (map)
1600 Taylor Street, NE
Washington, DC 20017
A second service will be held on Saturday, December 5, 2015, 11:00 AM in New York at
Emmanuel Baptist Church (map)
279 Lafayette Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11238