10 Landmark Cases That Show How the NAACP LDF Reshaped Racial Justice

As the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund marks its 75th anniversary, The Root looks back at the court rulings that defined its legacy. 

The Tallahassee Democrat

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has been fighting for justice on behalf of African Americans for the past 75 years. Started in 1940 by its first director-counsel, Thurgood Marshall—who would go on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice—the organization has been the legal arm of the civil rights movement, fighting for justice, equality and advocacy across the nation. (Though it shares part of its name with the NAACP, the LDF has been a separate organization since 1957.) President Barack Obama has called the organization “the best civil rights law firm in American history.” Here are 10 of the many LDF cases that have changed racial justice in America over the past 75 years.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

The case that led to the end of school segregation is the highlight of LDF’s legal legacy. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court declared that the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 was unconstitutional. Brown v. Board of Education was actually five cases representing 13 plaintiffs in lawsuits against school districts in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Washington, D.C. More than 60 years after the landmark ruling, the struggle against resegregation continues.

Griggs v. Duke Power

In Griggs v. Duke Power in 1971, Jack Greenberg, the LDF’s second director-counsel, represented 13 employees from the Duke Power Co.’s Dan River Steam Station in Draper, N.C. Duke Power had been discriminating against its black employees on the basis of race and underpaying its African-American employees. In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Duke Power was in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The court’s decision helped ensure that there are equal employment opportunities for individuals regardless of their race. 

Smith v. Allwright

In Smith v. Allwright, the Supreme Court ruled in 1944 that the state of Texas was in violation of the 15th Amendment by excluding African Americans from primary elections. Lonnie E. Smith, an African American in Harris County, Texas, sued for the right to vote in a Democratic Party primary, which challenged a state law that only allowed whites to vote in the primaries. Thurgood Marshall, who argued the case, called it one of his most important victories. Although the case was based in Texas, it had a major impact on race relations in the South and on African-American voter participation.