NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

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NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Created by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1940 as a tax-exempt fund for litigation and education, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), based in New York, has been the central organization for African-American civil rights advances through the legal system. While the LDF, popularly known as the "Inc. Fund," had from the beginning a board of directors and a separate fund-raising apparatus from those of the NAACP, it was planned as an integrated component of the larger organization, designed to carry out Charles H. Houston's plan for a legal assault on segregation in public education. The LDF's leadership was represented on the NAACP board and helped design organizational strategy. The LDF was set up with a loose administrative structure, with a director-counsel as the chief officer. The first LDF director-counsel, former NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall, hired a staff of five lawyers.

During the 1940s and 1950s such lawyers as Robert Carter, Franklin Williams, and Constance Baker Motley joined the staff. Marshall made the LDF the main locus of civil rights law, and the LDF litigated a variety of landmark civil rights cases before the Supreme Court. In 1944 the LDF successfully argued in Smith v. Allwright that primaries that legally excluded blacks were unconstitutional. In 1946 Morgan v. The Commonwealth of Virginia outlawed segregation on interstate bus lines. In 1948 the LDF brought Shelley v. Kramer to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled that racially restrictive housing covenants that prohibited sales of homes to blacks were unenforceable.

However, much of the LDF's work was done not at the Supreme Court but in small southern towns, fighting lawsuits or defending arrested blacks under adverse and dangerous conditions. LDF lawyers, forced to work on a shoestring budget, received death threats and ran from lynch mobs. While they frequently lost cases, their presence helped assure fair trials. In 1950 the Supreme Court ruling in Shepard and Irvin v. Florida helped establish the now-familiar doctrine that defendants must be tried in a venue free of prejudice against them.

Education cases were the centerpiece of LDF legal efforts. Following the NAACP's successful strategy in Mississippi ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), the LDF attacked discrimination in graduate education. Beginning in 1946 the LDF brought a series of cases before the Supreme Court, culminating in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948), McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), and Sweatt v. Painter (1950). In the latter, the Court ruled that segregated facilities led to discrimination, though the case did not directly challenge the principle of "separate but equal" in primary education. LDF lawyers also brought suit to eliminate pay differentials between white and black teachers, in part to demonstrate the enormous expense of a dual school system. By 1951 the LDF, preparing for a direct challenge to segregation, was working on twenty elementary and high school cases and a dozen higher-education cases. The LDF's efforts were crowned with success in 1954 with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, argued by Thur-good Marshall.

By 1954, however, personal differences among staff members and disagreements over organizational mission led to a total split with the NAACP. The NAACP considered the LDF a vehicle for arguing civil rights cases. LDF leaders considered achieving educational equality their prime responsibility. The LDF and the NAACP formally parted in 1956, establishing separate boards of directors.

After the implementation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered desegregation "with all deliberate speed," was announced in 1955, the LDF began designing desegregation plans and fighting court cases to force compliance, notably Cooper v. Aaron (1958), in which the Court mandated the integration of Arkansas's Little Rock Central High School. LDF lawyers continued to work to combat segregation in other fields. In 1956 the LDF began a central involvement in the civil rights movement when it won Gayle v. Browder, the case of the Montgomery bus boycott led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

At the same time, southerners determined to keep the LDF from operating. Legislatures charged that the LDF created cases in which it had no legitimate interest or standing. The Supreme Court finally ruled in 1963 that LDF litigation was constitutionally protected. By 1965 LDF lawyers had taken school cases as they had arisen in every southern state. Eventually, in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1964), the Court renounced "all deliberate speed," and in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968) ordered immediate and total desegregation.

In 1961 Thurgood Marshall was appointed a federal judge by President John F. Kennedy and left the LDF. Jack Greenberg, his white assistant, who had come to the LDF in 1949, succeeded him as the new director-counsel, a position he would hold for the next twenty-three years. During the 1960s the LDF continued as an active force in the civil rights movement, defending sit-in protesters in cases such as Boynton v. Virginia (1961) and Shuttlesworth v. Alabama (1964), as well as defending Freedom Riders and providing bail funds for the many activists who were arrested during the struggle.

The Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s brought about tensions within the LDF over its white leadership and its refusal to defend black radicals except in those few cases where civil rights issues were involved, such as exorbitant bail fees for incarcerated Black Panther Party members. In 1970 several LDF lawyers pressed the organization to take up the defense of black radical Angela Davis after she was implicated in a courthouse shootout, but the LDF board of directors and Director-Counsel Greenberg vetoed the idea. The same year, when Julian Bond was refused his seat in the Georgia legislature because he opposed the Vietnam War, the LDF refused his case on the grounds that a white antiwar legislator would have suffered the same fate.

In recent decades the LDF has concentrated on other pressing civil rights areas. In Griggs v. Duke Power (1971), the LDF persuaded the Supreme Court to strike down discriminatory educational or testing requirements irrelevant to job performance. The LDF then argued numerous affirmative action cases based on Griggs in the following years. The most important of these was Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1979), in which the LDF worked largely successfully in opposing Allan Bakke's "reverse discrimination" suit.

Capital punishment was a particular focus of LDF's efforts. In preparation for the Supreme Court case Maxwell v. Bishop (1970), which involved an Arkansas African American convicted of the rape of a white woman, the LDF organized a study that showed that 89 percent of defendants around the country given the death penalty for rape between 1930 and 1962 were black, and demonstrated patterns of racial discrimination in death sentences given for rape in Arkansas between 1945 and 1965. While the Court declined to rule on the LDF's statistics, Jack Greenberg continued to lead the campaign against the death penalty, which achieved temporary victory in Furman v. Georgia (1972). Capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, but the death penalty in cases of rape, a special concern of blacks, was declared unconstitutional in Coker v. Georgia (1977). The LDF continued to appeal death penalty sentences for African Americans. In the early 1980s it commissioned the so-called Baldus Study, a mammoth

study of the influence of race on death penalty sentencing, following which lawyers argued McCleskey v. Kemp (1987). However, the Supreme Court refused to rule solely on the basis of this statistical evidence that the death penalty was arbitrary or racially discriminatory.

In 1984 Julius LeVonne Chambers took over as director-counsel and continued to concentrate on litigation in the areas of poverty law, education, fair housing, capital punishment, fair employment, environmental justice, and voting rights. A housing discrimination suit the LDF brought in the San Fernando Valley in 1992 was settled for $300,000, one of the largest awards ever granted victims of racial bias in housing.

In 1992 Chambers resigned and was replaced by Elaine Ruth Jones. Jones had previously been head of the LDF's regional office in Washington, D.C., where she had helped draft and implement civil rights legislation, notably the Civil Rights Restoration Act (1988), the 1988 Fair Housing Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Jones redirected LDF's focus toward cases of environmental and health care discrimination. Environmental activism covers suits to ensure equal treatment of blacks victimized by toxic wastes and cases enforcing federal laws mandating free lead-poisoning exams for poor children. Examples of health care cases include a suit filed in Contra Costa, California, charging with violation of civil rights statutes officials who built a county hospital largely inaccessible to the district's African-American population.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the LDF continued its involvement in poverty law, voting rights, criminal justice, and education, which remained an especially active arena centering on widely contested issues including public school vouchers, federal funding, and affirmative action. In 2005, LDF Director-Counsel and President Theodore M. Shaw sent a letter to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights criticizing the Commission's proposal for a comprehensive review of public primary and secondary school desegregation decrees and court orders, noting that such a review would not help to reverse the perception of a trend toward racial resegregation in the United States.

Since 1964, the LDF has also provided scholarship programs to aid African-American law students.

See also Black Panther Party for Self-Defense; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Bond, Julian; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Houston, Charles Hamilton; Marshall, Thurgood; Montgomery, Ala., Bus Boycott; Motley, Constance Baker; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Sweatt v. Painter


Baldus, David, George Woodworth, and Charles A. Pulaski Jr. Equal Justice and the Death Penalty: Legal and Empirical Analysis. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990.

Hall, Kermit, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Rowan, Carl. Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.

Tushnet, Mark. The NAACP's Legal Strategy Against Segregation, 19251950. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

greg robinson (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005