Janai Nelson Takes Head of NAACP’s Historic Legal Defense and Education Fund, Ready to Fight a ‘Trifecta of Assaults’ on Democracy
While today legalized school segregation seems unthinkable, it was indeed the law of the land before the 1954 turn. Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that declared the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional. Indeed, this groundbreaking decision that sparked a series of long-awaited and hard-fought civil rights victories did not happen by osmosis. It didn’t happen because state and federal leaders got together and decided to create a society that truly reflects the ideals of democracy, freedom and equality embraced by its founding fathers. It happened thanks to the relentless and tireless determination of a team of lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) led by Thurgood Marshall (who would later become the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court). Marshall founded LDF in 1940 as a separate legal entity from the NAACP, and over its more than 80-year history, the organization has fought valiantly – and successfully – to create structural change to to expand democracy, eliminate disparities and achieve racial justice.
“LDF is the nation’s premier civil rights organization in decades,” insists Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of #1 New York Times Bestseller just mercy. “From the leadership of Thurgood Marshall until today, they have used the law to protect the rights of black people, especially in communities where they are disadvantaged and vulnerable to bigotry and discrimination.”
On March 14, 2022, this legendary, non-partisan organization, America’s racial moral conscience in many ways, changes hands as its seventh President and Director-Counsel, Sherrilyn Ifill, passes the baton to its Associate Director-Counsel. Janai Nelson. This is the first transition from female to female in its history.
Ifill, one of the most powerful and tenacious voices for racial justice in a generation, led the organization through its greatest period of growth and transformation, increasing the DFL’s budget fivefold, from 12 million to $60 million, and adding nearly $100. million to its endowment fund. She successfully guided the organization through some of its toughest years, including the Trump presidency, rise of white supremacist violencehigh-profile incidents of police violence, January 6 Capitol Uprising, and a global pandemic. “Sherrilyn Ifill’s tenure has been particularly significant as we have experienced a new understanding of police violence against people of color and seen the resurgence of voices hostile to racial equality,” Stevenson says. “The courts have retreated from advances in the fight against discrimination, which makes the work of LDF more important than ever. Reflecting on the impact of Ifill and the future of LDF, Nelson insists: “We are a much bigger organisation, a much more visible and much more powerful organization than we were when Sherrilyn inherited it, but we have to be able to maintain it.”
After nearly a decade at the helm of the premier civil rights organization, Ifill announced her intention to step down as president and director-attorney last November. “I’m pretty proud to have led LDF through what I consider to be a very dangerous time, during the Trump presidency and afterwards, and we’re still in a dangerous time,” Ifill says. “I think I was the right leader at that time – the end of the Obama era and through the Trump years – but I actually think it’s really important to recognize when a new portal opens – in especially when it comes to race and justice and democracy in this country – and I think we’re entering that space, and it seems to me like the right time for there to be new leadership. for most of her current tour with LDF (Ifill previously served as assistant counsel at the LDF arguing suffrage cases from 1988 to 1993 before spending more than two decades in academia), she is convinced that Nelson is the right person to lead the organization at this pivotal moment.”I was in the rare position of having someone in the organization who was the next perfect leader,” Ifill insists. “What Janai and I have in common , among other things, is our deep love and t constant for LDF and our loyalty to the organization. Organization is in our blood, and we truly prioritize organization and its ability to thrive. Recognizing the importance of the LDF’s role in the fight to secure and preserve voting rights as the next election cycle approaches, Ifill said it was important to ensure the transition happens well before the 2024 elections.
Acknowledging heightened levels of division, partisanship and racial hostility, Nelson assumes the helm equipped for what she sees as an assault on democracy that is unfolding on at least three fronts.
fight for the truth
As states increasingly pass laws to ban books and limit school curricula amid election misinformation abounds, we are arguably in an existential fight for the truth. “We are unable to advocate for the justice required if we are unable to tell the truth about it; if we’re not able to reveal the story that underlies the contextualization of everything that exists today,” Nelson explains. “This is one of the most fundamental fights we fight – the fight for the truth. This is a very dangerous time because it could potentially shape the intellect and outlook of the next generation of residents of this country in an extraordinarily dangerous way that leaves them open to indoctrination, that leaves them hungry for history, of knowledge and context, and all of these conditions are ripe for authoritarianism, for dictatorships and really a stupid generation of people who have no sense of the world around them and the people in it. Nelson is clear that the role of LDF is not only to tell the truth but also to force the country to continue to reckon with that truth.
Protect the right to vote
With a flurry of new legislative activity increasing voter restrictions, including 34 new laws passed in 19 states and Florida Senate Passage of a bill creating an election crimes agency even though a recent PA survey found fewer than 475 potential allegations of voter fraud out of the 25.5 million ballots cast in the six key states whose results were challenged by former President Trump – LDF is deeply concerned about this New York Times columnist Charles Blow calls Jim Crow 2.0.
“There is an active effort to suppress the vote of a majority of Americans. This is the reality. We see this in the proliferation of voter suppression laws across the country,” Nelson explains. against that on a number of fronts in a number of states from TX to GA in various lawsuits, including some remnants of the last election, in MI, and we’ve always had a very, very large record of work on voting rights and that’s because we fundamentally believe in a principle that the Supreme Court enunciated in the 1800s that the right to vote preserves all rights and it’s those kinds of fundamental principles that are under attack Reflecting soberly on the general state of voting rights, Nelson adds: “We are now seeing a rollback in a way that we have never seen on such a scale before.”
Protect the right to protest
Nelson insists that the latest threat among those most prominently on LDF’s radar is an attack on the right to protest. “The third front is about the fundamental right to protest, the very right to talk about these things, the right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate dissent, and demonstrate our First Amendment constitutional right to be able to repel the assaults that we see. “Referring to Florida’s previous proposal”riot lawNelson adds: “We are now seeing legislation that is so clearly designed to invite and incite violence against protesters that it is alarming.”
Indeed, Nelson insists that these three threats create a clear and present danger to our very democracy. “It is only through protest. It was only by voting, and it was only by speaking the truth that we got to where we are now, and I think those who fear the continued evolution of our democracy to include an emerging majority of people of color and the sharing of power that it will require has forced them to think that they must uproot these fundamental methods of change, and that is truly the most frightening and intimidating trio of attacks we face.
While it may be tempting to view LDF’s work as limited to certain segments of our society, their scope is arguably much broader. It is nothing less than upholding the sacred ideals of freedom, equality and democracy for all of our country. “There was a time when people said we were after the race, and there was less understanding of how essential organizations like LDF are to maintaining our democracy,” Nelson explains. “I think it’s now demonstrably clear that you need institutions and organizations like ours that are non-partisan and often the first responders or the first people to diagnose when something is wrong with our democracy as a whole.
The story is often told that on leaving the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “What do we have: a monarchy or a republic?” and he reportedly replied, “A democracy, if you can keep it.” Indeed, just like with weight loss, achieving and maintaining are two very different things. As our country heads into an election cycle amid sharp division and vitriol that tears at the very fabric of our democracy, democracy protection institutions like the LDF are increasingly vital.
“The country is really in a battle for its own identity right now, and it can go a number of ways,” Nelson recalled. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that we’re necessarily in a moment of progress – a lot of that is quite cyclical and we could be in a state of significant regression, but it’s our job to shape the direction, our job to make sure that even if it’s a step backwards it’s short-lived and that we go even further than retrenchment, and that’s really the job of civil rights advocates and activists and especially jurists who are constantly thinking about how to use the tools of our society, the tools of our government and our democracy to hold ourselves to those ideals.