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SC students eligible for funds aimed at building pipeline of civil rights lawyers in South

LDF

Civil rights activists cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has launched a new scholarship program and lawyer development pipeline to help establish the next generation of civil rights attorneys fighting injustice in the American South. NAACP Legal Defense Fund/Provided. 

As the United States continues to grapple with racial injustices of the 21st century, advocates say there’s a crucial need for a new generation of skilled attorneys dedicated to serving Black communities in the South.

But students have needed to take on more and more debt to pay for their studies in recent years as a result of the skyrocketing cost of law school, making it more difficult for hopeful change-makers to pursue lower-paying law fields, such as civil and human rights.

A new scholarship program aims to help.

The Marshall-Motley Scholars Program, announced Monday by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is designed to remove the financial and professional barriers that often discourage students from pursuing civil rights law as a future career path.

The program, made possible by a $40 million investment from an anonymous donor, will support 50 aspiring lawyers over the next five years by providing full law school scholarship for tuition, room and board. This assistance will effectively allow students to graduate debt-free from law school, eliminating the financial barrier that can discourage students from pursuing a career in racial justice.

Scholarship participants will also participate in summer internships early on in their studies. After graduation, they’ll take part in a two-year fellowship at a national or regional civil rights organization with a racial justice law practice in the South.

In return, scholars must commit to practicing civil rights law with the pursuit of racial justice in one of 18 Southern states for at least eight years after finishing their fellowship.

The program was named after two civil rights legends: Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley. Marshall worked as LDF's founder and was the first Black Supreme Court justice, while Motley served as a former LDF attorney and was the first Black woman to become a federal judge.

“The Marshall-Motley Scholars Program will not only honor the transformative civil rights legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall and Judge Constance Baker Motley, but also build a framework to ensure new and sustainable generations of civil rights warriors have a commitment to further racial equity and justice in the South," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said in a statement.

Offering full scholarships and covering other costs associated with law school and requiring students to complete trainings, internships and postgraduate work "will introduce a new cohort of energized and dedicated legal minds to create real progress in the region," Benjamin said.

The American Bar Association has estimated that the cost of a private law school education has grown by more than 175 percent since the 1980s.

Making things harder: The association has also found that lawyers of color on average graduate with $25,000 to $40,000 more in student debt than their White peers.

Jino Ray, director of the Marshall-Motley Scholars Program and former law student, knows this struggle well.

"I had to figure out how to navigate the pipeline on my own and incurred a lot of debt in doing that," Ray said.

Ray, who was born in rural Cairo, Ga., said he saw "how deeply systemic racism is ingrained as part of American life."

But he's also seen how recent events, including the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, have brought some of these issues to the forefront of many Americans' minds.

"The events have shifted the energy and caused the nation to rise up, and so you have a very collaborative approach to ending inequality and racism in the United States," Ray said. "So I think that this program, being committed to supporting and developing the next wave of civil rights lawyers in the South, that's really critical."

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund invested heavily in the creation of Black law firms in the South.

"If we look at the value of that investment ... to be able to replicate that kind of impact on this scale with 50 new scholars who are going into the South, LDF is really deepening its long-standing presence in the South," Ray said.

The launch of the new scholarship, which coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, comes as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund celebrates the 80th anniversary of its founding. 

Incoming first-year law students from across the country are eligible to apply for the scholarship program, Ray said. They can attend the school of their choosing, as long as it's accredited by the American Bar Association.

Candidates should already have an interest in pursuing a career in civil rights, and need to have "strong ties" to improving outcomes for marginalized communities in the South.

The application deadline is Feb. 16. To learn more about MMSP and/or apply, go to MarshallMotleyScholars.org.

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

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