To attend the LDF’s 32nd annual National Equal Justice Awards Dinner themed: “Justice. Equality. Democracy,” is to swell with a sense of pride in the organized, brilliant pushback of our people in courts all over the land; it’s to know that two black women (Sherrilyn Ifill and Janai Nelson) are at the helm of this esteemed organization; it’s to be in awe of the sheer breadth of the work that they do.
But if I were telling the truth, there was also a sense of foreboding, and even fear as I sat munching a delicious winter burrata salad course. I thought of our hard-fought legal rights (always paid for in blood) slipping away; of knowing that our vigilance is ever required; of never-ending battles because those who would like to strip us of our rights are like a scourge that never left—they just lurked in the shadows of the body politic like cancer, mutating, lying dormant to be called forth by a small man in a White House.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (not to be confused with the NAACP proper—the LDF has been totally separate from the organization since 1957), put on a stellar program last Thursday in New York City, which boasted luminaries such as actress Renee Elise Goldsberry; retired Federal Judge U.W. Clemon; retired Merck executive P. Roy Vagelos and Barnard Board of Trustee Member Diana Vagelos; Equal Justice Initiative head Bryan Stevenson and esteemed guests such as Insecure’s Kendrick Sampson (aka “Lyft Bae,” as Sherrilyn Ifill dryly noted) and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The program began with a moment of silence for the 11 Jewish worshippers who were killed by a white Supremacist in Pittsburgh; it also called the names of the two black people killed in Kentucky who died after a racist assassin could not pry the doors of a black church open. Alas, it reminded me that our struggle here is cyclical, continuing, unrelenting. In fact, in some ways, it may be worse because so many think we are “past the past.”
As LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill remarked in the amazing film produced for the event by Crystal McCrary McGuire, the newest front in the fight against injustice is now the federal government. In fact, for the first time since the Civil Rights Division was established in 1957, the Justice Department is now working actively against the LDF, an unprecedented development.
“What we’re seeing with this Department of Justice is how easily we can roll back the progress made over the last 50 or 60 years; an entire agency of our government has shifted its position to do the opposite of what it was chartered to do,” Ifill said during the event, adding: “We decided that we had to become a private DOJ.”
Ifill remarked that since Donald Trump has taken office, the LDF has filed lawsuits against at least three cabinet secretaries (Homeland Security; HUD and Education), the DOJ twice, and the president himself (NAACP LDF v. Trump). In fact, besides the Justice Department, there’s been no other organization that has argued more before the Supreme Court.
In the last several years, the LDF has also expanded its litigation practices in an era one LDF lawyer called “the new abnormal.” The LDF decided to bring a lawsuit against the government after it decided to revoke Temporary Protective Status (TPS) against Haitians in this country; it is educating Americans on the Census question which is now asking about citizenship (essentially a gambit to prevent brown and black people from filing it out, which is to strip those communities of political and economic power); voter suppression, of course, with lawsuits in Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, Missouri, Texas and Georgia; and fighting against Trump packing conservative judges to the federal bench by giving them the “LDF treatment,” including Brett Kavanaugh.
Perhaps the most humbling moment of the evening was when longtime activist and freedom fighter, Marian Wright Edelman, was honored with the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award. Edelman recalled her days of first working with the organization as a 25-year-old lawyer dispatched to Greenwood, Miss. (she was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar), and dropped the names of Civil Rights icons like the current Justice Department drops the ball on justice (“Medgar Evers picked me up from the airport;” “MLK came down many times;” “Bobby Kennedy...,” etc.). Edelman spoke lovingly of the LDF’s “quality control” back in those days, which delightfully reminded me of Motown.
Of course, the theme of the evening was all about voting, and exercising that right. As host Jacque Reid noted, “We are facing a critical moment in this nation. We are one week away from one of the most consequential elections of our lifetime.”
And so, it goes, it continues, it rolls on. This country may be sick with racism but to our everlasting gratitude, the LDF got the antidote, to paraphrase Travis Scott.
Thankfully, the LDF, which raised more than $2 million on Thursday, remains relentless in its march towards freedom, one court case at a time.