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A leadership change is coming to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund

NOEL KING, HOST:

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has reshaped the course of justice over the past 80 years. It has fought for school desegregation and the right to vote. Now it's preparing to change leaders. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Sherrilyn Ifill arrived to run the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 2012, when the country was led by its first Black president. Already, she says, there were inklings that a racial backlash to that election would surface.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Civil rights lawyers have a unique practice. We get to see the way the law works in the lives of those who are at the margins and those who are at the bottom. And therefore, we get to understand what the flaws are in our legal system.

JOHNSON: And sure enough, police killings of Black and brown people prompted international protests. White nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Va., and the FBI said hate crimes rose against Black and Asian people. Of all the LDF's work, Ifill says she's proudest that the group met the challenge of 2020 - a historic election conducted during a pandemic.

IFILL: The work that we did to protect the voting rights of Black and brown people around the country, the creativeness that we demonstrated in our litigation, whether it was suing the United States Postal Service or bringing suits under the Ku Klux Klan Act, including against Mr. Trump for his efforts following the election - we showed that we were willing to stand in the gap.

JOHNSON: Ifill says she's ready to pass the baton at LDF next year, her 10th. The next director will be her deputy, Janai Nelson. Nelson's roots at the organization are deep, dating back to 1995.

JANAI NELSON: And from the moment I was assigned to a historic piece of impact litigation involving transportation in Los Angeles, I was hooked. And I knew that that was the type of work that I wanted to dedicate my life to.

JOHNSON: Since then, Nelson has led and won challenges to a voter ID law in Texas and a former President Trump's order to ban diversity training in the federal government. But she says becoming only the eighth leader of LDF in 80 years will be the pinnacle of her career.

NELSON: I can't think of any organization that has the legacy that LDF has, that has the clear and unapologetic focus on racial justice that LDF has.

JOHNSON: Nelson says there will be plenty of work to do as states rush to pass dozens of new voting restrictions.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLDOORE'S "A HIGHER INTELLIGENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.