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Alumna, Equal Rights Legal Giant to Receive Thurgood Marshall Award

Elaine R. Jones

WASHINGTON (Oct. 27) -- Elaine R. Jones, retired president and director-counsel emeritus of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) and Howard University alumna (BA ’65), has been named the recipient of the American Bar Association 2011 Thurgood Marshall Award.

In 1993, Jones became the first woman and only the fourth person to head LDF, the nation's oldest law firm fighting for equal rights and justice for people of color, women and the poor.  LDF was founded in 1940 by former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

By the time she took over the helm of LDF, Jones had already blazed several legal trails, defending death row inmates and arguing major class-action employment discrimination against corporate giants like Monsanto, American Tobacco Co. and Pullman Standard.

Jones joined LDF in 1970 immediately after law school.  Only two years out of the University of Virginia School of Law, where she was the first black woman to graduate, Jones was counsel of record in Furman v. Georgia, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that abolished the death penalty in 37 states for 12 years.

She left LDF in 1975 briefly to serve as special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation William T. Coleman Jr.  She returned two years later and originated the position of legislative advocate in LDF’s Washington, D.C. office. In that capacity, she helped secure passage of legislative milestones, such as the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1982, the Fair Housing Act of 1988, the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

Born in Norfolk, Va., Ms. Jones came of age in the 1940s and 1950s in the Jim Crow South and learned its painful lessons early on. Her mother was a college-educated schoolteacher and her father was a Pullman porter and a member of the nation's first black trade union. Her parents taught her about the realities of racism, and Jones knew early on that she wanted to be an attorney.

 “I knew from the age of eight that I wanted to be a lawyer because I saw so much wrong in the world,” Jones recalls. “Black people were sitting in the back of the bus, going to segregated schools and were afraid of policemen in their communities. It made me say to myself, what can I do to change this?”

Jones has been recognized repeatedly for her work.  She holds 14 honorary doctorate degrees and the Jefferson Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded by the University of Virginia, which does not award honorary degrees.
She was the first African-American to serve on the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, a former Council member of the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities and a recipient of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession's Margaret Brent Award.

The award will be presented at a dinner on Aug. 6, 2011, during the ABA annual meeting in Toronto, Canada.

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