BHM 2017 – Day 3: The NAACP Legal Defense Fund – Beyond Brown

Yesterday I wrote about the LDF’s “equalization policy”. The sweeping efforts of this organization are probably under-reported. The LDF was instrumental in critical lower court cases like getting MLK out of jail, or getting clemency for sit-in demonstrators.  Even with Brown v. Board of Education, there was a process that the LDF organized on several fronts. Each of the 5 cases in Brown v. Board was brought to a district court, then a state supreme court, and then, finally, to the Supreme Court. One of the other things I think about is how much money this must of cost. Lawyers have to be paid, staffers have to be paid, research and investigations have costs. I have no doubt that white Northerners were the beneficent donors who funded the LDF. True unsung heroes. The NAACP was always a multi-racial organization.

I say all this to say – we couldn’t have done it alone. Sometimes it’s important to remember.

One of the things that the LDF went after was fair pay and employment issues. In two lawsuits in 1940, the LDF argued cases for fair wages for teachers, so that black and white teachers got the same pay. Also in 1940, the LDF fought and won against the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen who enacted a statute such that “non-promotables” would be excluded from being firemen, no more than 50% of a fire unit could be black, and seniority rights for “non-promotables” would be restricted. In the case, a fireman was laid off for 16 days, then rehired to a lower position, in line with the statute. In 1967 in a lawsuit against the cigarette company Philip Morris, they won a fight against practice of “departmental seniority”, which had forced non-white workers to give up their seniority rights when they transferred to better jobs in previously white-only departments. In a 1971 suit against Duke Power, the court ruled that tests for employment or promotion that produce different outcomes for blacks and whites are to be presumed discriminatory, and must measure aptitude for the job in question or they cannot be used.

The LDF fought desegregation on several fronts beyond public schools. In 1946, they won a case to integrate interstate buses. In 1948, they were able to overturn the legality of racially discriminatory real estate covenants which kept African-Americans out of white suburbs. In 1963, they won cases to integrate public parks and hospitals receiving federal funding. In 1964, they won a case to integrate public facilities such as restaurants.

In the famous Loving v. Virginia case argued before the Supreme Court in 1967, anti-miscegenation laws in 15 states were made unconstitutional, permitting people of different races to marry.

The LDF came to the aid of civil rights activists on several occasions. In 1963, LDF attorneys defended Martin Luther King, Jr. against contempt charges for demonstrating without a permit in Birmingham, AL. In 1965, they obtained a court order to allow a voting-rights march in Alabama, led by King., which had previously been stopped twice by state police. The LDF also won a case to overturn all convictions of demonstrators’ participating in civil rights sit-ins and they got courts to reverse state convictions of Alabama and Mississippi Freedom Riders.

The LDF took on cases specifically dealing with criminal justice. LDF defended against “coerced confessions”, especially for felonious charges. In 1947, they won a case against strategies that excluded African Americans from criminal juries. In 1971, they won a case which upheld the right of prisoners to challenge prison conditions in federal court. Change of venue laws were upheld in 1971, to defend the right of a criminal defendant in a misdemeanor case to a venue where jurors are not biased against him. The LDF also led a fight in the 1970’s against the death penalty.

While researching this blog, I came across a document written for the University of Alabama Law School entitled “Making Bricks without Straw: The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Development of Civil Rights Law in Alabama 1940-1980”.  It’s a fascinating article, which actually covers the history of black lawyers from 1869 forward, explaining that even though Harvard trained a few black lawyers, such as Charles Hamilton Houston, senior counsel for the NAACP in the 1930’s, whites and blacks alike didn’t believe that the lawyers could win cases. In contrast, the Howard Law School pumped out hundreds of lawyers where lawyers like Thurgood Marshall thrived. Alabama’s fight to end segregation started with voter registration. To register to vote, a black person had to have two white registered voters to vouch for him, and that was still no guarantee that he would be registered. This law was challenged in 1945. Another challenged law was that registration was only permitted of persons who could understand and explain any article of the Federal Constitution. Still another challenged case was one of three black men who sat in line to register but were denied for three straight days while all of the whites in line were registered. When the city of Tuskegee was redistricted into a “sea dragon” so that blacks were disenfranchised, bringing the number of black voters from 400 to 5, the case went up to the Supreme Court. Even Tuskegee Institute had been gerrymandered out of the City Limits of Tuskegee and this action turned the court.

Even after Brown v. Board of Education, legal fights to gain entry into colleges and universities in the South continued. The article detailed the fights for admission into University of Alabama and Auburn University’s graduate schools, particularly the fight of Autherine Lucy, which spanned from 1952 to 1963, long after the Brown case in 1954.

Suffice to say, the lawyers of the NAACL LDF were busy. Yet, as I said yesterday, winning court cases is no guarantee of enforcement. It truly takes a change in attitude, followed by a change in practices, sometimes the other way around, and sometimes, attitudes never change.

On Monday, I plan to give some brief biographies of the lawyers in the LDF and then I’ll move on to the congressional acts that came out of the Supreme Court cases and mass actions in the South.

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