In 2015 an extended national crisis in racial justice reconfirmed the need for visionary leadership in the fight for racial equality. For the past 75 years, whenever the call for civil rights leadership rang out, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) has stepped up. We have pushed for change in the courts and in community meetings, through media and convenings, on the Hill, and in every other corridor of power and influence.
As we witnessed and responded to increasingly visible incidences of police violence across the country, LDF launched its Policing Reform campaign, which seeks to end racial bias in policing through public education, policy and legislative advocacy, litigation, community organizing and strategic communications.
We also celebrated the 75th anniversary of LDF’s founding with special events and presentations where we were joined by writers, members of the legal community, the general public, and LDF leaders—past and present. As we conclude the celebration of this momentous anniversary year, we look back at some of our most memorable moments in 2015.
Challenges to the doctrine of disparate impact–the enshrined legal standard for eliminating policies and programs that discriminate disproportionately against people of color–had been winding its way through the courts for over a decade. Texas Department of Housing and Community Development v. Inclusive Communities Project, the case that brought Supreme Court victory in June 2015 reaffirming the disparate impact standard in the Fair Housing Act, was the culmination of many years of advocacy and strategic communications. In addition to submitting an amicus brief in the case, LDF was involved in the dissemination of federal guidance on disparate impact during the course of the litigation, as well as partnering with key stakeholders to mobilize public awareness around the litigation.
“This effort was a product of a sustained effort and reflected the way in which policy, communications, and litigation can work together seamlessly to protect the fair housing standards that Americans cherish,” said Rachel Kleinman, Senior Counsel at LDF.
Are residents of public housing in New York City entitled to be free from police harassment in their homes just like other New Yorkers? Have they been stopped or arrested without regard for their rights? Has NYC criminalized traveling home or visiting a friend while Black or Brown? In April 2015, a federal court answered all of these questions in the affirmative. LDF worked with local residents to develop a suit that successfully challenged unconstitutional and racially discriminatory practices in New York and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residences, including the stop, questioning, searching, and arrest of NYCHA residents or their guests for criminal trespass without sufficient legal evidence of wrongdoing LDF entered into a settlement and ongoing court-monitored mediation process with the City of New York and the NYPD in its class action lawsuit against the city of New York and the NYCHA that has empowered public housing residents to have a voice in the polices that govern their safety.
Our country’s long and odious history of prejudice and discrimination – from Japanese internment, McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare, to slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow – reminds us of the dangers of creating distinctions based on ethnicity, race, color, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion. LDF has been a tireless leader in promoting dialogue around racism and its impact on vulnerable communities. The unfortunate events of 2015, including the June massacre of the Emmanuel Nine in North Charleston, South Carolina and the spike in hate speech following the San Bernardino tragedy, compelled LDF to speak out forcefully against divisive rhetoric.
On December 9, LDF joined the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other sister organizations to speak out against xenophobia and religious intolerance and hate speech. LDF condemned the use of the San Bernardino massacre to unleash irresponsible and dangerous vitriol against Muslims in the United States and abroad, including the use of bigoted language to divide our multi-ethnic and pluralistic country. “In the face of heightened bigotry, LDF has always stayed vigilant against all forms of racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance and will continually work to hold our democracy to its highest ideals,” said Janai Nelson, LDF’s Associate Director-Counsel.
This year, LDF played a significant role in lifting up the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and advocating for its continued role as a robust vehicle of federal enforcement of high educational standards. “It was important for us to not have the ‘No child left behind’ deficiencies continue into the future,” said Leslie Proll, Policy Director at LDF. “We were faced with some incredible political challenges, and used that to extract the best possible provisions we could.”
Going forward, LDF remains committed to ensuring that the Administration use its authority to issue timely and strong regulations and guidance to help states implement the law. “We urge timely and robust regulations and guidance to steer implementation and we will hold states to their assurances that they will do the right thing for all children,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF. States must also ensure that parents and community advocates are involved in educational decision-making, and that the needs of students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students are incorporated into interventions. Strong implementation will determine whether this bill helps to fulfill Brown v. Board of Education’s promise to ensure equal access to quality educational opportunities, so that all students can succeed and thrive.
Throughout 2015, LDF continued to engage in “rapid response” to incidences of police violence. LDF’s recent work on policing began with the killing of Eric Garner in 2014 and the career-ending injuries of Robbie Tolan in 2008, and is rooted in the work of LDF’s founder Thurgood Marshall who represented falsely accused criminal defendants in the late 1940s. That rapid response has evolved into a sustained, multi-year campaign to reform policing practices at the national, state, and local levels. LDF has issued numerous public statements and policy recommendations geared toward channeling the groundswell of public outcry against police violence into concrete reforms. LDF appeared frequently in the media, emphasizing the need for structural reform in connection with the in-custody police death of Freddie Gray, the fatal police encounter and incarceration of Sandra Bland, the shooting death of Tamir Rice, and countless other victims.
LDF also worked closely with its local partners to document community concerns about policing. In October, LDF spearheaded a People’s Town Hall in North Charleston, South Carolina with the local chapter of the NAACP and the ACLU of South Carolina. Residents of North Charleston were given a platform to publicly confront disparities in traffic stops of Black motorists and request that the U.S. Department of Justice initiate a pattern or practice investigation of the racially discriminatory policing of the North Charleston Police Department. North Charleston residents also discussed broader issues surrounding racial profiling and criminal justice.
In November LDF filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (“Fisher II”), urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reaffirm the longstanding principle that a diverse student body yields numerous educational, professional, and societal benefits and reject a second challenge to the University of Texas at Austin’s (UT) holistic admissions policy. UT presently admits the majority of its students by accepting those with the highest GPAs from each high school in the state. UT supplements that admissions policy through a process that takes into account a wide variety of factors, including race, as well as a student’s academic and personal achievements.
“To say to a student that everything about you is relevant except for your race strips away a part of that student’s identity,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF. “We need to embrace what makes us different and work to understand each other better. Bringing people together with different backgrounds helps break down racial stereotypes and benefits all people.”
The plaintiffs in the Fisher litigation continue to receive an outpouring of support for diversity in college admissions from the scores of institutions, including Fortune 500 companies and military leaders, Texas state legislators, and universities.
In 2015, LDF joined organizations across the country to commemorate fifty years of the Voting Rights Act, one of the most critical pieces of legislation for minority communities and our democracy in the history of this country. Click here to see our memorable VRA countdown.
March 7, 2015 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, one of the most horrific events in American history. On that day, six hundred marchers assembled with SNCC and SCLC activists and crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery. Violent images of police brutality and the killing of innocent civilians in Selma, not only on television, but on film screens across the country in 2015, galvanized support for voting rights. On March 7, LDF joined historic civil rights leaders including Amelia Boynton and Congressman John Lewis, President Obama, faith leaders, and other organizations near the Edmund Pettus Bridge to remember the brave activists who lost their lives in their peaceful protest for equal citizenship for Black people.
LDF attorneys, including Jack Greenberg, served as key strategists for the activists, and on March 16, 1956, they filed a proposed plan for the March from Selma to Montgomery on behalf of plaintiffs Hosea Williams, Peter Hall, and John Lewis. The plan, which included the route and services to be rendered to the marchers, was approved by the federal district court. The court’s order in favor of the plaintiffs’ motion allowed the March to continue after police violence and terror prematurely ended the marchers’ first attempt. Six months later, the Voting Rights Act was passed in Washington, D.C.
To commemorate Bloody Sunday and the remarkable progress it instigated over the past fifty years, LDF hosted a Unity reception at Brown AME Chapel in Selma, Alabama. The discussion, moderated by Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF, introduced some of the behind-the-scenes players who provided the legal framework for the March to realize its completion and set forth a chain of events that resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Alabama civil rights activist Jerome Gray, LDF Co-Counsels U.W. Clemon, Steve Ralston and Solomon Seay, Jr. provided remarks on the moments leading up to securing the March and the legal strategies they employed to achieve success.
In August, LDF and its co-counsel won the appeal in the case of Veasey v. Perry, which challenged one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws—Texas’s SB 14. In 2014, SB 14 was struck down at the district court level on the grounds that it placed a disproportionate burden on the voting rights of more than 600,000 registered Texas voters, a substantial percentage of whom are African-American and Latino voters. LDF client and Prairie View A&M student Imani Clark, a registered Texas voter who lacks any of the forms of ID required by SB 14 but previously used her student ID card to vote, was one of the many voters of color adversely affected by the law.
After an appeal of the ruling, the 5th circuit dismissed plaintiff’s 14th and 15th Amendment claims alleging that the law was enacted with a discriminatory purpose. Nevertheless, the court upheld the finding of discriminatory impact against voters of color under the Voting Rights Act, citing uncontroverted racial disparities. “The Fifth Circuit was absolutely correct in affirming the district court’s finding that the voter ID law has a prohibited discriminatory effect on Black and Latino voters,” said Natasha Korgaonkar, LDF Assistant Counsel. “When it comes to the appellate court’s decision to reserve the finding of intent, however, we of course strongly disagree. Trial evidence was clear that SB 14 supporters knew that the law would have a disparate impact on voters of color, but deliberately passed the law with suspect intent. Our laws and our democracy require more.”
Almost sixty years ago in 1956, LDF litigation ended segregation on Montgomery’s buses. In 1965, LDF represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis and other protestors for the Selma-to-Montgomery March. LDF played a pivotal role in the March and continues its efforts to ensure equal protection and rights for all in Alabama today.
On December 2, one day after celebrating the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, LDF lawyers and co-counsel filed a federal lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act, challenging Alabama’s photo voter ID law, on behalf of Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP. Our complaint asserts that Alabama enacted a photo ID law that is one of three intentionally discriminatory measures passed by the 2011-12 legislature and would disfranchise over a quarter of a million registered voters, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Latino. The case comes shortly after Alabama’s decision to largely close 31 DMV offices, which has made it much more difficult for Black and Latino voters to get driver’s licenses, the most common form of photo ID.
“Alabama has a long history of enacting laws that dilute the Black vote or that directly discriminate against Black and Latino voters seeking access to the polls. All of this makes a clear case that this law is intentionally discriminatory,” said Deuel Ross, Assistant Counsel at LDF
In the 75th year since its founding, LDF celebrated bold, visionary leadership with several hallmark events. In April, LDF celebrated the occasion with an anniversary dinner in Philadelphia hosted by journalists Jacqueline London, Andrea Mitchell and Jenee Desmond-Harris.
In September, LDF held an historic reunion at the Ford Foundation in New York City. In July, hundreds gathered at the Smithsonian Museum of American History to recognize and reflect on one of America’s most important civil rights achievements. LDF leaders were joined by Ari Berman of The Nation, Professor Spencer Crew of George Mason University, and Alabama State Senator Henry “Hank” Sanders on a panel moderated by CNN’s Donna Brazile to discuss efforts to protect the right to vote against voter suppression efforts. In September, the special 75th Anniversary celebration brought together over 200 esteemed attorneys and staff who have formed a part of the LDF family over the past 75 years. The reunion featured a conversation with LDF’s President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill and former Director-Counsels Elaine Jones and Ted Shaw, and a screening of “The Trials of Constance Baker Motley.” Jack Greenberg, LDF’s second Director-Counsel, who took over the helm from the esteemed Thurgood Marshall, was also honored. Over the course of the evening, former and current LDF attorneys and staff, bound by over six decades of social justice lawyering, renewed their purpose and resolve.
On November, LDF celebrated a special 75th Anniversary National Equal Justice Award (NEJAD) Dinner honoring former Attorney General Eric H. Holder and two international foundations. The occasion served as a celebration of LDF’s work, as well as a call to action to rally around the broad racial justice agenda that the organization has advanced. Dinner guests were treated to a performance by members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, dynamic speakers, and an inspiring film screening depicting LDF’s seventy-five year history.
Infrastructure investment is the new civil rights issue. In late December, LDF and partners filed a complaint with the US Department of Transportation, outlining how the Maryland Governor’s decision to move funds from an important Baltimore public transit public to suburban and rural roads violates the Civil Rights Act. The planned Baltimore Red Line rail would have connect east and west Baltimore, bringing 10,000 jobs to build the line and offering public transit options to bring residents closer to employment areas. The complaint points to how canceling the project and moving funds discriminates against Maryland’s Black populations.
“This is a critical civil rights issue. Everyone who knows this city knows that the lack of rapid transit restricts access to jobs and housing for low and middle income African-American residents living along the city’s east-west corridor,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President & Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF). The Governor’s unilateral decision to cancel the Red Line this summer came while many residents were still reeling from unrest after the death of Freddie Gray. “It frankly shocked the entire city,” said Ifill, who has spoken frequently about the civil rights implications of the decision to abandon the plan for the Red Line in Baltimore.
The complaint has already received extensive local and national attention with stories in the Washington Post, Fortune, and the Baltimore Sun, including an affirmative editorial from the Baltimore Sun.