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Racial justice legal concept for protection of civil rights

NAACP scholarship program to aid next generation of civil rights lawyers

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund is working to build a new civil rights advocate team, launching a scholarship program to pay for their law degrees.

The Marshall-Motley Scholars Program is “an innovative educational and training opportunity that will produce the next generation of civil rights attorneys to serve Black communities in the South,” the NAACP said in a news release.

The program builds on the legacy of fighting for racial justice in the United States and producing the leaders who will fight for racial justice. It is launching at the same time the legal defense fund prepares to open its southern regional office in Atlanta this year.

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Sherrilyn Ifill

Sherrilyn Ifill, the LDF’s president and director-counsel, said that for 80 years, the organization has taken the lead to develop and support the nation’s civil rights lawyers and other advocates. “The Marshall-Motley Scholars Program is the next phase of our commitment to identify and invest in a new generation of brilliant minds who have a deep personal desire to bring about racial justice in the South.

“The majority of Black people in this country still live in the South and continuously face impediments to voting, education equity, and racial and economic justice,” she said. “For this reason, LDF’s docket and litigation practice has always been rooted principally in the South. During the 1960s and early ’70s, LDF invested in the creation of Black law firms in the South, providing fellowships and startup costs for the law practices of some of the most celebrated civil rights lawyers in the region, including former LDF President and Director-Counsel Julius Chambers, a legend among civil rights lawyers in North Carolina.”

Now is the right time to invest in a new team’s growth and development, Ifill said.

“With the MMSP, and the opening of our new regional office in Atlanta, LDF is deepening its longstanding presence in the South to help leverage the talent, passion, and commitment of a new cohort of civil rights attorneys,” Ifill added.

The scholarship program is named in honor of civil rights leaders Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice and an LDF founder, along with Constance Baker Motley, the first Black female federal judge and a former LDF attorney.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin

Columbia, SC, Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is Black, is one of many who favors the new program.

“The Marshall-Motley Scholars Program will not only honor the transformative civil rights legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall and Judge Constance Baker Motley but also build a framework to ensure new and sustainable generations of civil rights warriors have a commitment to further racial equity and justice in the South.”

The program offers full scholarships and other associated costs for a law degree, he said. Participants must complete an internship, training, postgraduate work and a commitment to spend eight years embedded in the South for legal work.

The program is designed to provide pathways to self-sufficiency, leadership and socio-economic progress. It will develop participants to become advocates for transformational change in the Black community.

“The moment we’re in has made clear that much work remains to make the promise of equal justice and civil rights for all a reality in the United States,” said Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative

“It’s now certain that we will need another generation of lawyers and advocates who fight for the rights of vulnerable, disfavored and marginalized people in this country,” Stevenson said. “This is critical in the American South where the long history of violence, exploitation and discrimination against people of color has created urgent problems that must be addressed.”

He said people have always underestimated the complexity and skills required of a good civil rights lawyer, making the new scholarship program that much more exciting.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, also a former LDF attorney, said he too is excited about this launch. “I began my career at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and it was one of the defining professional experiences for me and I am certain these young lawyers will be able to say the same. The year 2020 proved to us all that economic inequality, the barriers to moving up and forward, and the retreat from public and civic education are deepening challenges that we must face head-on.”

The new generation of civil rights attorneys trained through this program “will be prepared for the next iteration of challenges,” he said.

The program is funded by an anonymous donor who contributed $40 million for the 50-participant program.

The scholarship program comes at a time when Black students continue to face barriers to attending law school. And the cost of private law school has increased by 175% since 1985. The American Bar Association states that student loans take a disproportionate role on lawyers of color. They often take unwanted career paths as a result.

This program addresses that barrier that deters some from pursuing careers as civil rights lawyers. 

“Systemic racism remains a deeply ingrained part of American life, with widespread and far-reaching consequences, and there is a growing need for lawyers to help combat it,” according to the NAACP. “The MMSP is a response to the rampant inequality, racial injustice, and lack of resources that continue to plague the South and its Black communities.”

The MMSP application deadline is Feb. 16. To learn more about MMSP or apply, visit MarshallMotleyScholars.org.