Janai S. Nelson

Janai S. Nelson is LDF’s President and Director-Counsel. Ms. Nelson has also helped to steward some of LDF’s most pivotal developments in the past seven years, including guiding the design and launching one of the most far-reaching efforts to create the next generation of civil rights leaders: The Marshall-Motley Scholars Program. Prior to joining LDF in June 2014, Ms. Nelson was Associate Dean for Faculty Scholarship and Associate Director of the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development at St. John’s University School of Law where she was also a full professor of law and served on the law school’s Senior Leadership Team. 

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the past two years went beyond civil rights battles to take on what it saw as emerging threats to American democracy. It sued President Donald Trump to defeat a commission on voter fraud, Attorney General William P. Barr on a policing commission, and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy over planned mail slowdowns ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Nelson was a law professor at St. John’s University researching voting rights and election law and began her career in civil rights law with an LDF fellowship in 1998. After joining the organization in 2014, she helped drive research on combating partisan and racial gerrymandering. More recently, she’s led LDF’s campaigns for equity in education.

“I am deeply honored to lead LDF through the next chapter of our work advancing the rights and fighting for the full protection of the dignity and humanity of Black people in America,” said Ms. Nelson. “As we have for more than 80 years, LDF will continue to defend the heart and soul of our democracy by utilizing all of the tools and tactics at our disposal, including organizing, advocacy, legislation, public education, research, and litigation.

“We are living through the most comprehensive, multi-layered, multi-directional threat to our democracy that we have seen to date. The unprecedented trifecta of attacks on our democracy includes wide-ranging voter suppression laws and racially gerrymandered district maps, restrictions on our right to assembly and protest, and the banning of truth and other attempts to erase the lived experiences of people of color. We must meet these threats head on, knowing that the promise of our democracy’s future is greater than forces that seek to undo it.”

Ms. Nelson began her civil rights career at LDF, first as an extern in 1995 while a student at UCLA School of Law, then as a recipient of the prestigious Fried Frank-LDF Fellowship in 1998 until she was hired as an Assistant Counsel by LDF’s first female President and Director-Counsel Elaine Jones. Ms. Nelson went on to lead LDF’s Political Participation Group, including the entire voting rights and redistricting docket, felony disenfranchisement, and voter suppression matters, and represented persons on death row.

After leaving LDF to do research in Ghana, West Africa, as a Fulbright awardee, she spent nearly 10 years in academia, where she became a full professor and senior administrator and dean at St. John’s University School of Law. While in the academy, Ms. Nelson was honored with the Derrick A. Bell Award from the American Association of Law Schools Section on Minority Groups and was named one of Lawyers of Color’s 50 Under 50 minority professors making an impact in legal education.

Nelson said they are worried not just about new threats to civil rights but also about maintaining the fight against those that existed long before this administration.

“The things we’ve been working on for years cannot just be cast aside in order to respond to every antic coming out of the White House,” she said.

She added that ensuring access to clean water and efficient transportation, for example, are initiatives the organization has pursued for years and that making progress in those areas requires prioritizing and making tough decisions about the most pressing threats coming from the administration.