The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) mourns the loss of Drew Saunders Days III, who began his prolific legal career at LDF as a first assistant counsel and went on to serve as the nation’s first-ever African-American assistant attorney general for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). His venerable work at LDF helped lay the foundation for his lifetime commitment to civil rights law as a dedicated public servant and professor who educated and inspired a new generation of legal practitioners and scholars. Mr. Days passed away on Nov. 15, 2020, at his home in New Haven, Connecticut. He was 79 years old.
“Drew Days was a brilliant lawyer, a committed civil rights legal warrior, a public servant, and extraordinary professor whose memory will always be cherished by those of us who admired and respected him greatly and, yes, who also loved him deeply,” said former LDF Director-Counsel Elaine Jones. “For five years, my office was next to Drew’s at LDF. I saw his concentration, his level of preparation, the late hours, and the frequent travel, especially to Florida and other states, trying cases and arguing appeals. LDF was not a job; it was a commitment; a way of life.
“For the eight years that Drew Days served as an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he was a source of reason and sound judgment to lawyers older and more experienced than himself. Early on, he was given the title of First Assistant Counsel, a new title which set him apart as a leader among equals. Lawyers less experienced than he admired and respected him and sought his advice in their cases early and often. Jack Greenberg, LDF’s second Director-Counsel and Jack’s Deputy James Nabrit III, always wanted to know ‘what Drew thought’ before making a major decision especially in the areas of education and employment.”
Mr. Days was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on Aug. 29, 1941, but spent most of his youth in Tampa, Florida, and New Rochelle, New York, where he graduated from New Rochelle High School. He earned his undergraduate degree in English Literature from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, in 1963, and his juris doctorate from Yale Law School in 1966. Following law school, he was a labor law attorney in Chicago before serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in an agricultural cooperative organization in Honduras.
In a 2014 interview, Mr. Days indicated that he knew he wanted to work in civil rights law from a very early age. “I went to a segregated school in Tampa. I rode segregated buses and I was from the era with the segregated lunch counters and water fountains. I had a real feel for that. My mother was a school teacher and she suffered from the fact that her aspirations were very limited because of segregation,” he remarked.
“My father was an accountant and was involved as an officer in an insurance company in Tampa, headed by Mary McLeod Bethune, who was an acknowledged civil rights leader and a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. I met her when I was a child. All of those experiences pointed me in the direction of doing something in civil rights or individual liberties.”
Mr. Days began his LDF tenure upon his return to the United States in 1969 following his Peace Corps service. Mr. Days served in the role of first assistant counsel, which he described as “a job that I always wanted.” While at LDF, he engaged in federal trial and appellate court litigation in the areas of school desegregation, police misconduct, employment discrimination, and incarcerated individuals’ rights. He also served as the administrator of LDF’s Earl Warren Legal Internship Program (a program designed to train Black civil rights liberties lawyers and assist them in starting private practices), as well as its director of personnel for several years.
During his time at LDF, Mr. Days was part of the trial team in the school desegregation case, Mannings v. Board of Public Instruction of Hillsborough County, Florida. The case had deeply personal implications for him, which he described to The American Lawyer in 2015. “It’s really something to desegregate your own segregated school district,” said Mr. Days. “I could not have been more happy standing in the courtroom.”
He also remarked that the case “teaches that where people took Brown v. Board seriously, where they understood the redemptive quality of that decision in their communities, and where they went about the job, desegregation could be accomplished and accomplished well.”
In a 1970 memorandum to then-LDF President and Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg and Director of Community Services Jean Fairfax, Mr. Days urged LDF to take up the issue of representation on school boards. Many problems with unequal education, he argued, “need a prophylactic not a remedial approach. With Blacks on school boards (popularly elected and responsive to the needs of the Black community, I might add), many board decisions that might raise legal problems for us later on could be challenged at the planning stages, not after the new schools have been built, children have been transferred, and all the whites have fled the districts.”
For many years, Mr. Days served as “the Dean” of LDF’s annual Civil Rights Institute or “Airlie Conference,” held at the Airlie Conference Center in Virginia. He organized the annual convening and served as master of ceremonies at the then-three-day strategy conference that brought together southern civil rights lawyers with LDF and other civil rights attorneys from across the country.
“I admired Drew Days greatly. He was one of the legends I looked up to as a young LDF attorney,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s President and Director-Counsel. “His work and career set the standard for LDF attorneys. Drew also began the tradition of LDF attorneys serving as leaders of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice – the first of four to serve in this capacity.
“A decade later, as LDF’s founder Thurgood Marshall had earlier, Drew served as the U.S. Solicitor General during the presidency of Bill Clinton. I met him first at LDF’s Airlie conference, which he organized and led in the late 1980s. Years later, when I took over hosting the conference, I was proud beyond words to step into his shoes, and worked hard to live up to his standard of excellence.”
LDF Board member David Kendall, a senior counsel at Williams & Connolly and former assistant counsel at LDF, enjoyed a decades-long friendship with Mr. Days, which began during their time together as LDF lawyers. Kendall, who successfully litigated the landmark Supreme Court death penalty case Coker v. Georgia in 1977 said about Mr. Days: “He was a good friend, and he actually hired me at LDF in January 1973—not sure what his title was, but he offered me a job and I quickly said ‘Yes!’, reporting for duty on July 1. He was such a wonderful person.”
In 1973, Mr. Days took a leave of absence from LDF to serve in the first academic role of his career as an associate professor of law at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He returned to LDF in 1975, and continued to serve as first assistant counsel until 1977. That year, he was appointed assistant attorney general for civil rights in the DOJ under President Jimmy Carter and managed the agency’s civil rights division as it initiated civil actions challenging discrimination across multiple policy arenas. This included endorsing affirmative action programs in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.
“It was no surprise when Jimmy Carter, the nation’s 39th President, tapped Drew in 1977 to become the first African American attorney to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice,” said Jones. “That recommendation was urged and supported by the Attorney General Griffin Bell, whose Atlanta law firm had opposed LDF in several lawsuits. He knew firsthand of Drew’s excellence, as well as his temperament in dealing with the court and with opposing counsel.
“Drew then promptly reached into LDF and brought to DOJ from LDF Lynn Huntley, an LDF staff lawyer who had clerked for Judge Constance Baker Motley, and who was the first African American female member of the Columbia Law Review. Drew installed Lynn as head of the section of Institutionalized Persons within the division responsible for enforcing and protecting the federal rights of all institutionalized persons from prisoners to the mentally disabled and children in federal custody. Under Drew’s leadership groundbreaking work was accomplished in this area.”
“I was saddened to learn that Drew S. Days III has passed,” said former LDF Director-Counsel Ted Shaw. “He was my first boss, as the head of the Civil Rights Division at Justice. Drew left a huge legacy as an LDF lawyer. He served our country twice, as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and as Solicitor General of the United States, before teaching generations of students at Yale Law School. His life, his career, and his legacy exemplified excellence.”
Mr. Days returned to academia in 1981, becoming a professor of law at his alma mater, Yale Law School, where he focused on the fields of “civil procedure, federal jurisdiction, Supreme Court practice, anti-discrimination law, comparative constitutional law (Canada and the United States), and international human rights.” In 1988, he become the founding director of the law school’s Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights, serving in that role until 1993. Notably, in 1991, Mr. Days also became the school’s Alfred M. Rankin Professor of Law, a title which he would retain throughout the remainder of his career.
In 1993, Mr. Days took a leave of absence from his teaching duties after he was nominated by President Bill Clinton (and confirmed by the United States Senate) to serve as Solicitor General of the United States. In this position, he acted as the United States government’s attorney before the Supreme Court.
“Drew used his considerable influence in government while both at the Civil Rights Division and then as Solicitor General to increase the number of African Americans in important positions in government,” said Jones. “He took a particular interest in the dearth of African American Assistant U.S. Attorneys in the U.S. Attorney offices throughout the country.”
Mr. Days resumed his teaching duties at Yale Law School in 1996, and served as a professor at the school for the rest of his career. In addition to teaching, Mr. Days also served as of counsel to Morrison & Foerster in Washington, D.C., where he led the firm’s Supreme Court and appellate group from 1997-2011.
Throughout his career, Mr. Days wrote prolifically. According to his Yale Law School biography, among other works, he published “two volumes on United States Supreme Court jurisprudence, practice, and rules” and also published an article examining the implications of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in commemoration of its 40th anniversary.
Mr. Days volunteered frequently and was a member of myriad organizations dedicated to advancing civil rights, international relations, and arts and humanities. Among other positons, he served as a board member of the MacArthur Foundation for 12 years, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations for a decade, and a trustee for The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law for 12 years. Throughout his career, Mr. Days also participated in human rights fact-finding missions in Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, and Kenya.
Hamilton College, Mr. Days’ undergraduate alma mater, named its Days-Massolo Center after him in 2011. According to its website, the center “promotes community inclusion, facilitates intercultural dialogue, builds collaborations and establishes partnerships that help make Hamilton a welcoming environment for faculty, staff and students.”
Mr. Days is survived by his wife of 54 years, Ann Langdon-Days, his two daughters, Alison and Elizabeth Days, and his granddaughters, Frida and Georgia Rico