Prominent lawyer had 'profound effect' on civil rights law
WASHINGTON — James Nabrit III, a civil rights lawyer who argued several prominent cases involving education and free speech before the Supreme Court from the 1960s to the 1980s, has died at 80.
He had lung cancer, said Elaine Jones, former president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where Nabrit worked for 30 years.
Nabrit, whose father was a leading civil rights lawyer who served as president of Howard University, died March 22 in Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md. He argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court on such fundamental issues as education, free speech and access to public accommodations.
His most noteworthy case may have been Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver (1973). It was the first school desegregation case to reach the Supreme Court from a state that did not have segregation laws.
The Supreme Court agreed with Nabrit's argument that de facto segregation in Denver left minority students with inferior facilities and staff members, denying students equal opportunity to a good education.
“He really was one of the greatest lawyers in the civil rights movement,” Ted Shaw, a former president and director general of the Legal Defense Fund, said on Tuesday. “Jim was part of the backbone of the legal team that defended civil rights and was partly responsible for bringing civil rights law out of the darkness. He had a profound effect on the law.”
In 1959, Nabrit was hired at the Legal Defense Fund by Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 became the first black justice on the Supreme Court. Nabrit recalled working on cases with Marshall in Louisiana, where a guard was stationed outside their room at night with a shotgun.
Nabrit handled several sit-in cases in which black college students were denied service in restaurants and other public accommodations in the 1960s. He worked on school discrimination cases in Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as death penalty cases in Alabama, Florida and other states.
“The Supreme Court was ahead of the other branches of government in opposing discrimination,” Nabrit said in a 2001 interview with Washington Lawyer magazine. “President Eisenhower and President Kennedy both supported some aspects of civil rights legislation, but the court was the leading institution.”
In 1965, after filing a lawsuit on behalf of civil rights leader Hosea Williams, Nabrit and LDF President Jack Greenberg wrote a plan approved by a federal judge that allowed the Selma-to-Montgomery march, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to go ahead.
Nabrit worked on the Supreme Court appeal of a case from Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 in which King and other marchers were jailed after they were denied permission to stage a march. While incarcerated, King wrote his celebrated “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
“There are a lot of people who are heroes whose names are well-known,” Jones, who was president of the Legal Defense Fund from 1993 to 2004, said on Tuesday. “Jim Nabrit is one of those unsung heroes whose names were not known. The heroes we know of depended on his advice.”
Nabrit graduated from Yale Law School in 1955. He served in the Army and practiced in Washington before joining the Legal Defense Fund.
“If there were such a thing as civil rights royalty,” Shaw said, “Jim would be a prince.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Clues to Chief Justice John Roberts’ thinking on new ObamaCare case
- Horse racing industry banks on Wolf
- Savings, aesthetics of LED praised, but streetlight conversion could cost Pittsburgh $13M
- Nevada speaker-elect steps down amid criticism
- Mears savors success, credits legendary Lange for guidance, inspiration
- Staten scores 21 to lead West Virginia to upset of No. 17 Connecticut
- Lawrenceville boutique owners hope it’s lucky Number Fourteen
- For Steelers, a fight to finish for playoff berth
- Ohio dairy farmers cashing in on gas well boom
- Daily Courier roundup: Penn State Fayette women remain winless
- Pirates enter Plan B with Martin off market