UPDATE: Read Jim Nabrit’s obituary in the New York Times
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. mourns the passing, and celebrates the life of James M. Nabrit, III, a true hero of the legal struggle to ensure civil rights for all Americans. Mr. Nabrit passed away in Washington, D.C. on March 22, 2013.
Over the course of 30 years, Nabrit served as a guiding influence to LDF’s work. He joined LDF in 1959, litigating a range of cases, first under the direction of Thurgood Marshall, LDF’s first Director-Counsel. Nabrit later served as Associate Director-Counsel – the number two position at LDF – under both Directors-Counsel Jack Greenberg and Julius Chambers, and was a close personal friend and advisor to both men. Nabrit retired from the Legal Defense Fund in 1989 to care for his ailing father in Washington, D.C. He continued to advise generations of LDF lawyers after his official departure from the organization, most recently providing invaluable counsel and advice as LDF prepared its amicus brief in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, defending efforts to uphold affirmative action in higher education admissions. That case will be decided by the Supreme Court this year.
Jim Nabrit was a quiet, but forceful presence at LDF. He was known for his meticulous preparation of briefs and brilliant appellate advocacy. During his long tenure at LDF, Nabrit played a critical role in the series of cases involving issues that helped transform American society, including school desegregation, public accommodations, prison conditions and criminal defense. He argued on twelve occasions in the United States Supreme Court, prevailing in nine of those cases. In a 2001 interview in the Washington Post, Nabrit described his often spirited exchanges with Justice Hugo Black during oral arguments as his most memorable experiences before the Court. Nabrit also performed the unheralded but vital tasks of managing LDF’s operations so that it could thrive and grow as an organization. All the while, he was a driving force behind LDF’s appellate and Supreme Court practice, engaging in the fast-paced litigation that characterized LDF’s years in the aftermath of Brown.
Nabrit was part of the team that wrote the plan presented to Judge Frank Johnson in Alabama in 1965 for the final Selma to Montgomery march that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. He served on the team that litigated the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, represented civil rights activists arrested during sit-ins in Louisiana, and was a key figure in the litigation desegregating schools in Northern Virginia. He played a seminal role in the Keyes v. Denver School District No.1 school desegregation litigation. Nabrit’s Supreme Court and appellate practice also included the representation of inmates on death row, and he recalled these cases as the ones of which he was most proud.
Born June 11, 1932 in Houston, Texas, James M. Nabrit, III was the son of famed civil rights attorney James M. Nabrit, Jr., one of the team of attorneys who litigated the cases that constituted Brown v. Board of Education, a Dean of Howard Law School, and a close colleague of Thurgood Marshall. As a result, “Little Jim” – as the over six foot tall younger Nabrit came to be known – grew up surrounded by civil rights law and lawyers. He was educated in the then-segregated public schools of Washington, D.C., and graduated from the Mount Herman School in Massachusetts, Bates College in Lewiston, Maine and Yale Law School. Prior to joining LDF, Mr. Nabrit was in private practice with the firm of Reeves, Robinson & Duncan in the District of Columbia and was in active duty service for two years in the United States Army Signal Corps. He was a devoted husband to the former Roberta “Jackie” Harlan for over 50 years. She passed away in 2008.
In addition to being a brilliant litigator, Nabrit was a renaissance man. He was a “techie” long before the term became part of our lexicon. He owned one of the first Apple computers and was responsible for bringing LDF’s office into the computer age in the 1980s. He could always be counted on to have the latest tech gadget before anyone else had heard of it. He was an expert on handicapping horse races, and to the delight of the staff, conducted an annual lecture about the Kentucky Derby at LDF. He was also an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer.
Among his LDF colleagues, Nabrit is remembered for both his brilliant mind and his sincere, warm friendship.
James M. Nabrit, III helped move America closer to meeting its promises of equality and justice for all. His passion, vision and brilliance shaped decades of successful litigation of LDF. His passing is an opportunity to celebrate that progress and the critical role he played in moving the society forward. It is also an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to completing the task and finishing the job to which he dedicated his life.