The NAACP Legal Defense Fund launches a $40 million scholarship program for future civil rights lawyers, with help from an anonymous donor

As the NAACP‘s Legal Defense Fund celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, they’re also giving back — to the tune of $40 million — to support the careers of future civil rights lawyers.

Thanks to an anonymous donor, the legal organization is launching the Marshall-Motley Scholars Program, named after Thurgood Marshall, the founder of the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) who was the first Black Supreme Court justice, and Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge and argue a case before the Supreme Court.

The scholarship will fund the education and training of 50 aspiring civil rights lawyers over the next two decades — including fully funding law school, summer internships, and a two-year postgraduate fellowship at a racial justice law practice in the South. That amounts to an investment of $40 million, the LDF said in a statement on Monday.

“For 80 years, LDF has been at the forefront of developing and supporting many of our nation’s legendary civil rights lawyers and leaders,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel at LDF. “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.”

Those selected for the program, which focuses specifically on developing advocates for southern Black communities, will commit to practicing civil rights law for at least eight years upon completion, the LDF said. And students beginning law school as early as this year can apply.

The creation of the scholarship comes as a growing number of law students are saddled with debt — with more than half carrying $150,000 in debt, according to a 2020 survey by the American Bar Association. Among lawyers of color, that number grows even more. White respondents to the survey take on an average of $156,000 in loans, whereas Hispanic, Asian and Black respondents average between $180,000 and $190,000 in loans.

“The support offered by this program is an intentional effort to address the racial and economic barriers that often deter students from pursuing their dreams of becoming civil rights attorneys,” the LDF wrote in a statement announcing the program. “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. The (scholars program) is a response to the rampant inequality, racial injustice, and lack of resources that continues to plague the South, and its Black communities.”

The news comes amidst growing calls to address racial injustice in the US, following a summer of protests last year in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others.

In the South specifically, there is a “stronghold of White supremacy” and oppressive systems, said Jino Ray, the director of the new scholarship program, in a statement.

“If we are truly ready — once and for all — to call racial injustice a thing of the past, we will need extremely passionate lawyers, impeccably trained and equipped to work alongside the activists and organizers who have long been committed to the work of dismantling the oppressive systems in the South,” he said.