James M. Nabrit III, 80, civil rights attorney

James M. Nabrit III

James M. Nabrit III was a leading civil rights lawyer and attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

He died Friday, March 22, 2013 in Bethesda, Md. He was 80.

Nabrit was a strategist, legal author and an advocate who argued 12 cases before the Supreme Court and won nine.

Nabrit came of age during the early years of the civil rights movement. His father, James M. Nabrit Jr., helped Thurgood Marshall argue the cases that led to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and later became president of Howard University.

Nabrit was born June 11, 1932 in Houston. He attended all Black public schools in heavily segregated Washington, D.C. through the tenth grade. He then attended the Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts.

He graduated from Bates College in 1952 and Yale Law School in 1955. After passing the District of Columbia bar exam in 1955, he went to work at Reeves, Robinson and Duncan civil rights law firm. After spending two years in the Army, Nabrit proceeded to litigate case after case in northern Virginia, seeking to implement the desegregation mandate of the Supreme Court in the Brown case against massive resistance by the government of Virginia.

In 1959, Nabrit was invited to join the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. in New York City, joining a then small legal staff consisting of Thurgood Marshall, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley and Elwood Chisholm. Nabrit soon became deputy director counsel and worked for the Legal Defense Fund until his retirement in 1989, after which he continued as a board member and corporate secretary.

Appearing in deep South courts during the 1960’s civil rights cases was often threatening. During the battle to integrate the Little Rock public schools, Nabrit and Marshall shared a room at the home of local activists while a neighbor with a shotgun stood guard outside.

The Legal Defense Fund became the defender of the Black college students who sat at white-only lunch counters in 1960. Nabrit worked on defense strategies and wrote the briefs for the first three cases that reached the Supreme Court. They were Garner v. Louisiana, Hoston v. Louisiana and Briscoe v. Louisiana which were won. The sit-in cases were ultimately resolved by passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As Martin Luther King Jr. prepared to lead the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. to demand the right to vote, a projective injunction was sought in Hosea v. George Wallace. The judge required a written plan describing each day of the proposed march. It was written overnight by Nabrit and Jack Greenberg, along with Hosea Williams and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and attached to the judge’s order.

In 1973, Nabrit argued Keyes v. Denver before the Supreme Court concerning school segregation after a school board in Denver rejected an existing desegregation plan. Nabrit and Gordon G. Greiner, a Denver litigator, spent many years implementing the approved Denver plan.

The Legal Defense Fund fought against unfair death sentence decisions on behalf of both Black and white death row inmates. Nabrit was affected by his aspect of his career and remarked that of his work, he was proudest for having saved defendants from execution in five cases he handled.

Nabrit was preceded in death by his wife of more than 50 years, Roberta Jacqueline Harlan. According to published reports, Nabrit is not survived by any immediate family members.

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