The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund is the first civil and human rights law firm, established in 1940 by late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The early seeds of the LDF can be traced to the year before when prominent Black attorney Charles Hamilton Houston helped bolster the NAACP’s legal department.

Houston, a former vice-dean and dean of Howard University School of Law, was a former instructor to Marshall and several other Black attorneys who would go on to stellar careers. From 1929 and 1935, Houston worked as a part of Howard’s faculty and cultivated connections that lasted over the years. After leaving the school, he joined the NAACP as a special counsel and spearheaded efforts to take down Jim Crow Laws – most especially the so-called “separate but equal” clause that plagued many in the Deep South.

Houston amassed a consortium of Black lawyers as part of a “West Point of Negro Leadership” according to the organization’s accounts. These attorneys would combat racial segregation alongside Houston and several of their cases made their way to the Supreme Court, including the landmark 1954 Brown V. Board of Education case.

Although Houston died suddenly from a heart attack at age 54 in 1950, the torch that he lit was passed through Marshall and several others. The Harvard Law School graduate’s influence on Marshall and Black lawyers was significant, and he has been honored posthumously several times over.

Harvard named its Institute of Race and Justice at its law school after Houston and there is also a professorship named after him.

Sherrilyn Ifill has been serving as the LDF’s seventh president since 2012.

PHOTO: NAACP Legal Defense Fund

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