NAACP legal arm reaches into new areas affecting civil rights. Defense Fund turns attention to education, housing, other needs

Many civil rights organizations are broadening their approach to minority issues. Among them is the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is preparing to take the leap from legal protection of civil rights to also handling economic and sociological issues.

``We of the Legal Defense Fund are moving beyond the level of a single weapon, legal action, as our sole method of demanding our civil rights,'' says Julius L. Chambers, the fund's director-counsel. ``Our new thrust for 1988 will be to deal with problems of the poor.''

The 1988 thrust is an outgrowth of a series of meetings with black leaders at the local level in cities and communities throughout the nation, Mr. Chambers says. Affordable housing, he says, is a top priority in most black communities. So are health care, especially for the poor and elderly; employment; and quality education, especially in public schools located in poor and minority communities, he adds.

The Legal Defense Fund (LDF) will use its teaching arm to take a broader perspective of issues, says Jack Boger of the headquarters office in New York. Key areas on the LDF's 1988 docket, he says, are:

Education. The focus will be on quality, not desegregation. ``We shall defend the right of every child, no matter how poor, to education enabling each one to compete with all others,'' he says.

Housing. The LDF will work to help the homeless find shelter. ``No child can study and learn while sleeping in a car or outdoors, rather than at home with a family,'' Mr. Boger says. ``No adult can properly seek or be prepared for work with no home to go to.''

Health care. Noting that more than 35 million Americans have no access to health care, especially prenatal care, Boger says that the LDF will center its activities on young mothers and the elderly.

Employment. Blacks cannot make progress if they don't qualify for jobs - if black youth are not prepared for entry-level employment, Boger says.

``Our long-range plan took two years to design, and we look 25 years ahead,'' he says.

The LDF was founded in 1940 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as its legal arm. It originally had a staff of two: Thurgood Marshall (now a US Supreme Court justice) as director-counsel and a law clerk.

The fund was separated from the NAACP in the 1960s to retain its tax-exempt status. In 1986 it won the legal right to retain NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund as its official name. In the meantime, the LDF had expanded its staff to 25 lawyers, plus a national volunteer force of 400 lawyers. They provide free representation for individuals and groups in cases protesting racial segregation and discrimination in American society. Currently, the organization is involved in more than 200 cases.

The LDF has been able to expand its horizons because of a $10 million challenge grant from the Ford Foundation. The grant covers general operating expenses and allows for establishing a modest endowment. Chambers predicts the LDF will have raised $5 million by 1990, when it celebrates its 50th anniversary. His goal is to have a $10 million endowment by 1992.

The fund's $6.5 million annual budget is raised through donations and gifts from individuals, foundations, and corporations. Chambers and Howard University law Prof. Mary Frances Berry, a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, spent a day in Boston recently participating in a fund-raiser sponsored by the New England Committee for the Legal Defense Fund. The fund also operates two scholarship programs to help black students obtain law degrees.

In its long-range effort to secure constitutional protection for the poor, the LDF last July won a fair-housing case that could set a national precedent. It involved a private developer who was to convert low-cost housing into market-price housing. US Judge Harold R. Greene of the District of Columbia has approved a consent decree requiring that poor people occupy 25 percent of a proposed development in an Alexandria, Va., a formula that could apply to similar developments elsewhere in the US.

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