The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) deeply mourns the loss of June Shagaloff, a civil rights activist and organizer who joined LDF in 1950 as an intern before LDF founder Thurgood Marshall hired her as a full-time staff member on April 1, 1951. A community organizer and researcher for LDF from 1951-61, Ms. Shagaloff was brought on staff by Marshall because he felt that chronicling the impact of segregation on children and families was critical to the success of LDF’s related litigation. Her historical and social science research played a key role in LDF’s preparation for the successful Brown v. Board of Education arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Following the Court’s 1954 decision in Brown, and in response to the many requests for assistance received from NAACP branches and parents throughout the North and South, Ms. Shagaloff assisted LDF and Black communities in fact-finding, building parent-community support, developing desegregation plans, challenging token desegregation plans, organizing community and parent protests, and preparing for legal action.
“June Shagaloff was a tremendously important part of LDF’s desegregation work before and after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision,” said LDF President and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson. “Her critical research and impactful community organizing was an essential part of LDF’s evolution and person-to-person connections to Black communities across the nation. Her decades in organizing impacted countless lives and helped change the course of history in many cities and towns across America. Her passion and commitment will be missed.”
Ted Shaw, LDF’s fifth President and Director-Counsel, said of Ms. Shagaloff, “Her commitment to LDF and its work never waned. For many years, we talked a least once a week, often more, and she always wanted to know what LDF was doing. I talked with her on her last day, and she wanted to know how the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was going.”
Mr. Shaw called June Shagaloff a witness to and a participant in history. “She worked with Thurgood” he said, “and was one of the last surviving links to those who changed America and the world. She lived a long and consequential life, and I will miss her.”
June Shagaloff was born in New York City in 1928 to parents Samuel Shagaloff and Gertrude Bellinson. In 1950, she graduated from New York University with a degree in sociology and immediately joined LDF because, in her words, “that’s where my soul wanted to be.”
Her colleagues at LDF included legendary civil rights litigators Constance Baker Motley, LDF’s second President and Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg, and Robert L. Carter.
“It was [Marshall’s] belief that while a case could be won in the courts, in order to translate a legal decision into real changes in the community, you needed to have community understanding and pressure to make that change meaningful. He was very passionate about that,” Ms. Shagaloff said of her role at LDF.
Ms. Shagaloff’s first assignment from Thurgood Marshall was researching the school board records in Amityville, Long Island, looking for evidence of the intent to segregate white and Black students when selecting the location for a new junior high school.
“This was a northern school district in New York State … [I]t was amazing to find in the school records all of the evidence of the intent to segregate,” said Ms. Shagaloff. Ms. Motley litigated and ultimately won the case.
A trained researcher, Ms. Shagaloff was also an accomplished community organizer.
In her second assignment, which she would later recount had a profound effect on her, she worked with the NAACP branch in Cairo, Illinois, to desegregate schools and public facilities. She described Cairo as a very poor town of about 6,000 Black people and 6,000 white people living in total segregation. When she was arrested in Cairo, Mr. Marshall traveled to the town and negotiated her release from jail.
“The ways we organized were so out of date compared to what an organizer would do today,” recalled Ms. Shagaloff in 2014. “We went door to door.”
When she was assigned to determine why school desegregation efforts were not gaining traction in Nashville, Tennessee, for example, “we organized a door-to-door campaign where we met with parents and talked with parents. … Every community I ever worked in, parents were always responsive, they always understood what they needed for their children so their children would have a better life. … The personal contact and door-to-door really was the basis of all the organizing.”
“Ms. Shagaloff was unbelievably modest,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s seventh President & Director-Counsel. “When I asked her in 2014 to visit LDF for a day and speak with our current organizers and our summer legal interns, she was stunned. She said that she thought ‘that no one would be interested in what I did.’” Instead, Ifill explained, “for over an hour Ms. Shagaloff held our staff and interns spellbound as she recounted the stories about her work as an organizer in the South, and her uniquely rich experiences confronting violent opposition to school desegregation in the North.”
Arguably, Ms. Shagaloff’s most important assignment at LDF was helping the litigation team prepare for Brown v. Board of Education. She assisted with the research of Dr. John Hope Franklin, Dr. Horace Bond, and Dr. Kenneth Clark.
After Mr. Marshall’s appointment to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in 1961, Ms. Shagaloff left LDF to become the first Education Director of the national NAACP, which was, by then, a wholly separate organization from LDF, where she led a new public school desegregation drive in the North and West and continued to work with communities to challenge new discriminatory school policies and practices.
The new drive called for the elimination, or reduction, of segregation-in-fact in the public schools, regardless of cause, and the adoption of new state policies. The drive reached school systems of all sizes in Washington state, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
She was active throughout the Civil Rights Movement, working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and famously joining James Baldwin, with whom she enjoyed a warm friendship, and other Black writers and thinkers in their meeting with then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Although Ms. Shagaloff retired from the NAACP two years after marrying Michael Alexander in 1970, she remained an active promoter of peace and civil rights.
“We need discussions not about ‘healing’ but about how do we achieve change,” she said. “Getting people in the community to take action, that’s the kind of healing that means something to me.”
LDF credits its expansive organizing team and integrated approach to legal advocacy that relied on organizing as an integral component in significant part to the legacy of June Shagaloff and her work with communities across the South.