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The responsibility of being a civil rights lawyer has never felt more powerful — or daunting. The promise of racial justice has been met with a resurgence of retrograde white supremacy. Yet, a new generation of Black activism — relentless in its inclusivity and demand for dignity — remains undeterred, despite four years of failed federal government leadership and a precipitous descent toward authoritarianism and racialized violence.

In pivotal moments like these, civil rights lawyers historically have played a critical role in determining whether our democracy advanced through darkness or was consumed by it. By defending protestors, enforcing civil rights protections, and advancing novel legal theories, the Black civil rights bar has not only helped ensure that activism remains a vital catalyst for change — it has also served as an independent driver of transformation.

However, for many individuals ready to commit themselves to this critical work, relentless obstacles — stemming from the very racial discrimination they are seeking to eradicate as lawyers — block their path to civil rights legal careers. This is why my organization, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), which is made up of racial justice litigators, policy counsel, organizers and researchers, has created a new pathway to civil rights leadership: the Marshall-Motley Scholars Program (MMSP). This groundbreaking program provides comprehensive funding and resources to train a cohort of 50 aspiring civil rights attorneys over the next five years, who will then go on to practice civil rights law in pursuit of racial justice on behalf of Black communities in the southern United States.

This type of financial and structural support is urgently needed. Crushing student debt, resulting from purposeful policy designed to limit educational opportunity based on ability to pay, threatens to close the valve on the pipeline of new civil rights lawyers whose skills and commitment to advancing racial justice are necessary in this critical moment of change for our country.

A profile of the legal profession published by the American Bar Association in 2019 shows that, of America’s 1.3 million-plus lawyers, only 5% are Black, and they carry nearly two times the debt of their white counterparts at $198,760 to $100,510, respectively. This racially-disparate tax on legal education stands to foreclose a critical leadership path for promising Black students. In addition to eliminating the debt burden for aspiring civil rights lawyers by providing full scholarships to selected scholars, the MMSP also offers critical apprenticeship and post-graduate fellowship opportunities for scholars to hone their skills as they prepare to practice civil rights law.

And not a moment too soon. In the wake of record turnout and voter engagement in Black communities across the South during the 2020 election season and the 2021 Georgia runoff, lawmakers have unleashed a wave of attacks on these same voters. Already, over 253 restrictive election bills have been filed in 43 states in a clear attempt to suppress voters of color. Once again, falsehoods about “election security” are being used as a cover.

To be clear, the bills seek to limit voting methods that have proven effective and secure for decades. And they are being targeted now simply because voters of color availed themselves of these options more than ever before in an effort to avoid being exposed to a deadly pandemic.

Take Georgia, for example. In the wake of failed attempts to overturn the results of the presidential election, followed by the election of two new U.S. Senators, Republican lawmakers have rushed to file a wave of bills that will restrict weekend and early voting — including on Sundays, when Black churches lead get out the vote “Souls to the Polls” actions — and establish barriers to absentee voting through the prohibition of ballot drop boxes and restrictive voter ID requirements.

The completely unfounded myth of widespread voter fraud is being used to justify these actions. Yet, in December, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger proclaimed that “we’ve never found systemic fraud” to overturn the results of an election. In January, Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system implementation manager, held a press conference specifically to debunk false claims of voter fraud.

These racist attacks on Black voting power are as transparent as they come. When Black and Brown communities exercise their power, the forces of white supremacy react with fear and anger. Instead of appealing to voters, legislators would rather cut them out of the process altogether.

And that is why LDF has chosen to deepen its investment in the South – where the majority of Black people live. Through the MMSP, named after civil rights legend and lawyer Thurgood Marshall — who founded LDF and later became the first Black Supreme Court Justice — and the renowned Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to become a federal judge, we aim to seed the region with the next generation of civil rights attorneys.

These are challenging times, to be sure. But what inspires me most about this moment is, not only do we have brilliant and essential advocates leading the charge, we are creating a pathway for a continuing calvary to fuel the fight. We need to fund and foster a continuous supply of racial justice changemakers to counter the anti-Black racism that is in our country’s DNA to ensure that it does not dictate our destiny.

Because, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from this moment, it is that, as Justice Marshall counseled in a famous dissenting opinion opposing the disenfranchisement of persons with felony convictions: “The process of democracy is one of change.” And to create that change and make it last, we must ensure that we have fierce advocates at the ready.

Note: Applications for the Marshall-Motley Scholars Program will re-open again in early 2022. You can learn more about the program, including the forthcoming announcement of its first cohort of scholars, here.