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Anonymous donor gives $40 million to fund a new generation of civil rights lawyers

The program aims to remove barriers for students deterred by the steep costs of law school and will therefore offer free tuition and room and board for the Marshall-Motley Scholars.

Anonymous donor gives $40 million to fund a new generation of civil rights lawyers
Cover Image Source: Getty Images/ Judge Thurgood Marshall (left) in discussion with statesman Lyndon Baines Johnson following Marshall's appointment as a member of the Supreme Court, the first African-American to hold such a post. (Photo by Keystone)

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund on Monday launched a scholarship program designed to support a new generation of civil rights lawyers working for racial justice in the South. According to CBS News, the $40 million scholarship program will go towards putting 50 students through law schools around the country and was made possible by the generous donation of a single anonymous donor. "The donor came to us," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The donor very much wanted to support the development of civil rights lawyers in the South. And we have a little bit of experience with that."



Unveiled on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the program aims to remove barriers for students deterred by the steep costs of law school and will therefore offer free tuition and room and board. The LDF has been backing civil rights lawyers ever since its founding by the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1940; an era when Black people struggled to get effective legal representation and Black students were turned away from southern universities. It funded the creation of Black and interracial law firms in several southern states in the '60s and '70s and has since built a network of lawyers.


"While without question we are in a perilous moment in this country, we are also in a moment of tremendous possibility, particularly in the South," Ifill said. "The elements for change are very much present in the South, and what needs to be strengthened is the capacity of lawyering." According to NPR, once their program ends, the Marshall-Motley Scholars — named after Justice Marshall and Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman federal judge — will commit to working on civil rights law in the South for at least eight years. Since the South remains where the majority of Black people in America reside, it is also where the majority of the litigation the LDF pursues is based, the fund's leaders said.


The Marshall-Motley Scholars' work could ultimately focus on voting rights, addressing injustice in the criminal justice system, housing and educational disparities, and other cases that emerge from the region. "At this moment, the South is a place of tremendous activism, it's a place of political transformation, and it is a region that is in need of a strengthened core of civil rights attorneys," LDF President Sherrilyn Ifill said. "There are courageous, amazing civil rights attorneys doing incredible work in the South at this moment and we want to make sure that core strength is going forward in the future."


"Our country continues to be plagued with racial injustice, and we need Nonviolent Warriors who are prepared and equipped on all fronts to deal with it - especially on the legal front," the Rev. Bernice King said in a statement supporting the program. "It will allow the LDF to make greater strides on behalf of the Black community for generations to come in the area of racial justice, just as they did during the movement led by my parents." Jino Ray, who will direct the scholars program, revealed that it will support 10 incoming students for the next five years, through law school, summer internships, a two-year fellowship program, and special training sessions.


"The goal here is to leave nothing to chance related to their ability to pay for law school, focus on their education, and focus on getting the highest level of training possible so they can spend the time in the field once they get down to the South actually doing the work they're passionate about, and that's serving the community," Ray said. Cissy Marshall, Justice Marshall's 92-year-old widow, said in a statement that the fund is especially meaningful to her "because of Thurgood's powerful partnership with lawyers across the South who served with him as co-counsel on so many consequential civil rights cases." Joel Motley, the late judge's son, expressed delight that his mother's legacy will live on through "well-trained and committed litigators" who "will defend the rights of Black people across the South, dismantling the structures of white supremacy."

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