Legal Defense Fund, NAACP Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Body of lawyers and legal experts that seeks to advance civil rights by sponsoring litigation.

Although the National Association for the Advancement of Colored PeopleNational Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was primarily a lobbying group, its legal committee sponsored litigation as a means of achieving its civil rights goals. However, donations to lobbying groups were not tax deductible although those to litigating groups were, and consequently, the NAACP severed official ties with its legal committee in 1940, establishing the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF). The LDF used litigation as a means of influencing policy in racial discrimination, capital punishment, minority voting rights, and poverty law, although it has been most influential in racial discrimination and capital punishment.Discrimination, race

Racial Discrimination

The LDF’s primary objective was to eradicate segregation. Although confident that their best chance of success was with the counter-majoritarian federal judiciary, LDF attorneys recognized that the Supreme Court had upheld segregation as constitutional under the doctrine of separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). To end segregation, the LDF needed to work within the separate but equal doctrineSeparate but equal doctrine;desegregation[desegregation] before seeking to overturn it. The NAACP Legal Committee had initiated this strategy by winning Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada[case]Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada[Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada] (1938), which required that Missouri either admit African AmericansAfrican Americans;higher education[higher education] to the University of Missouri Law School or establish an African American law school. The LDF expanded on this victory by successfully litigating a case in which the Court ruled in Sweatt v. Painter[case]Sweatt v. Painter[Sweatt v. Painter] (1950) that Texas’s law school for blacks was substantially inferior to the state’s law school for whites, and therefore, Texas was required to integrate its law school. In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education[case]McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education[MacLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education] (1950), the LDF also prevented the University of Oklahoma from segregating African Americans who were enrolled in graduate school.

While pleased with these victories, LDF attorneys recognized that segregation was still prevalent. Although many civil rights advocates cautioned against assailing the separate but equal doctrine, LDF attorney Thurgood MarshallMarshall, Thurgood argued that the previous victories created ideal conditions for using the judiciary to end segregation. Accordingly, the LDF sponsored Brown v. Board of Education[case]Brown v. Board of Education[Brown v. Board of Education] (1954) and petitioned the Court to invalidate state-sponsored segregated education. To establish that segregation was unequal, the LDF introduced social science data confirming the deleterious effect that segregation wrought on African American school children. Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion in Brown outlawed segregated education and adopted many of the LDF’s arguments.

Although it was a monumental civil rights victory, Brown did not expunge racial discrimination from society. Consequently, the LDF continued sponsoring cases to achieve civil rights for racial minorities. The LDF was also successful in cases that forced universities to admitAfrican Americans;higher education[higher education] African Americans, Lucy v. Adams[case]Lucy v. Adams[Lucy v. Adams] (1955); battled Southern states’ “massive resistance” to desegregation, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County[case]Green v. County School Board of New Kent County[Green v. County School Board of New Kent County] (1968); defended the use of busing to desegregate schools, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education[case]Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education[Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education] (1971); and established a disparate impact test to prove employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Griggs v. Duke Power Co.[case]Griggs v. Duke Power Co.[Griggs v. Duke Power Co.] (1971).School integration and busing

As the Court became more conservative in the 1980’s, the LDF faced difficulty with its racial discrimination litigation. The LDF lost two crucial civil rights cases when the Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1866’s prohibition of racial discrimination in private contracts did not extend to racial harassment in the workplace in Patterson v. McLean Credit Union[case]Patterson v. McLean Credit Union[Patterson v. MacLean Credit Union] (1989) and that school districts could end busing even if doing so resulted in a return to de facto segregation in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell[case]Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell[Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell] (1991).

Capital Punishment

Encouraged by the success of Brown, many LDF attorneys began to oppose capital punishment.Capital punishment In the late 1960’s, the LDF unsuccessfully argued that capital punishment was racially biased and therefore violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1970 LDF attorneys adopted a broader approach by using all available procedural means to flood the federal courts with capital punishment appeals and prevent executions from taking place. Accordingly, the LDF litigated as many death penalty cases as possible, regardless of the race of the defendant or the issue involved.

In order to halt the flood of appeals, the Court agreed to rule on the constitutionality of capital punishment. In Furman v. Georgia[case]Furman v. Georgia[Furman v. Georgia] (1972), the LDF argued that the arbitrariness of capital punishment violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. A slim majority of the Court ruled that the states’ capital punishment procedures were arbitrary, effectively ending capital punishment. Following this decision, however, states rewrote their capital punishment laws to be more uniform and less arbitrary, and in 1976 the Court reinstated capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia[case]Gregg v. Georgia[Gregg v. Georgia] (1976).

After Gregg, the LDF experienced some success in reducing the use of capital punishment. It sponsored cases that invalidated mandatory death sentences, such as Woodson v. North Carolina[case]Woodson v. North Carolina[Woodson v. North Carolina] (1976) and Roberts v. Louisiana[case]Roberts v. Louisiana[Roberts v. Louisiana] (1976); forbade capital punishment for rape, Coker v. Georgia[case]Coker v. Georgia[Coker v. Georgia] (1977); required that trial judges consider all mitigating factors, Lockett v. Ohio[case]Lockett v. Ohio[Lockett v. Ohio] (1978); and prohibited death sentences for those who indirectly caused a death, Enmund v. Florida[case]Enmund v. Florida[Enmund v. Florida] (1982).

By the 1980’s the Court had become more conservative, and public opinion had shifted substantially in favor of capital punishment, and the LDF experienced difficulty litigating on behalf of condemned inmates. The Court ruled against the LDF by deciding that psychiatric testimony could be used against capital defendants to show future dangerousness in Barefoot v. Estelle[case]Barefoot v. Estelle[Barefoot v. Estelle] (1983); the Eighth Amendment allows death sentences even if someone who committed a similar crime received a life sentence in Pulley v. Harris[case]Pulley v. Harris[Pulley v. Harris] (1984); and statistics demonstrating racial discrimination in sentencing do not prove discrimination in an individual case in McCleskey v. Kemp[case]McCleskey v. Kemp[MacCleskey v. Kemp] (1987).

Further Reading
  • Greenberg, Jack. Crusaders in the Court: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
  • _______. Judicial Process and Social Change: Cases and Materials. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1977.
  • Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of “Brown v. Board of Education” and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
  • Meltsner, Michael. Cruel and Unusual: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment. New York: Random House, 1973.

Brown v. Board of Education

Capital punishment

Cruel and unusual punishment

Eighth Amendment

Fourteenth Amendment

Furman v. Georgia

Marshall, Thurgood

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

Plessy v. Ferguson

Race and discrimination

Separate but equal doctrine

Categories: History