Posted on November 22, 2021

‘We Have to Push Boundaries’ on Civil Rights, Says Incoming NAACP Legal Defense Fund President

Jacob Bogage, Washington Post, November 18, 2021

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the past two years went beyond civil rights battles to take on what it saw as emerging threats to American democracy. {snip}

Soon it will have a new leader.

Janai Nelson, the organization’s longtime second-in-command, will fill the post of Sherrilyn Ifill, who will step down as LDF president this spring, though a formal transition date has not been set.

Nelson, 49, was a law professor at St. John’s University researching voting rights and election law and began her career in civil rights law with an LDF fellowship in 1998. After joining the organization in 2014, she helped drive research on combating partisan and racial gerrymandering. More recently, she’s led LDF’s campaigns for equity in education.


We see these deep fissures about racial and social justice. To some people, those are tragic disagreements about human dignity, and to others they are signs of progress. How do you see it?

We are both fighting against a revitalized mission to advance White supremacy, and we are making progress. That is because we know that justice doesn’t proceed in a straight line. There are sharp turns and jagged edges. But we would be doing ourselves a disservice to say that we are in the same state of play that we were entering the civil rights movement or post-reconstruction.

There’s been an enormous amount of progress, but it is the incrementalism, it is the backsliding, that is still nonetheless a regression. That’s what is so deeply frustrating.


But I do think that the recognition that change can be incremental, should not be confused with any sense of satisfaction and any sense that we are not continually pushing for more radical and more immediate improvement.

What is your vision for leading the LDF, in terms of litigation and, in managing the organization itself?

We have a docket of cases that involve issues of education equity, economic justice, political participation and criminal justice. Our charge right now is not only to continue to litigate the cases we’re involved in, but to continue to think about strategic interventions in a conservative court.

We also need to think very carefully about how LDF is positioned as an organization, making sure that the next generation of activists and young people see their future in the work that we do. They need to see that the fights that they are most concerned about — their ability to have opportunities in employment, access to education and to live in a world that is not threatened by destruction because of climate injustice — that those types of fights are all civil rights battles.

The LDF is heavily involved with influencing appointments to the federal judiciary, and it seems liberals hold two schools of thought on that front. The first is to push the boundaries for more liberal nominees. The second is to move quickly to appoint confirmable moderates to counter recent conservative gains on the bench. What is your view?

I think we have to balance the practical with the possible, and we often don’t have enough vision or imagination to see what is possible. Many of the candidates that have been put forth by President Biden would not have been put forth had the broader civil rights community not been incredibly vociferous in demanding greater diversity. We are seeing civil rights lawyers being nominated to the federal judiciary in numbers that we haven’t seen in years, and people of diverse backgrounds that are breaking all sorts of historical records in terms of integrating the court in various ways. And that’s because we’ve created the idea of that type of diversity being normal and expected and what should happen in a multiracial, multiethnic democracy.

In order for there to truly be progress, we have to push the boundaries. If we allow the regression to intimidate us in our choices, intimidate us in what we believe is possible and feasible, that is when we go backward in a more permanent way.