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Jones for the defense.

Homespun but hilgh-powered, Elaine, Jones has all the right stuff to chart new directions for the,venerable, NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

HAVING FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES-FIRST LADY Hillary Rodham Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno, John F. Kennedy Jr., for example-has not distracted Elaine R. Jones from whence she came. Born in the segregated South, she hasn't forgotten what it was like having to drink from the "colored" water fountain and being turned away from restaurants and hotels.

She has been working for the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund (LDF) for 21 years, and now she is its head at a time when the issues are more complicated than ever before. But again, Jones can derive perspective and strength from her background. Ours was a family of words and ideas," she has said.

Her father was a Pullman porter and her mother, a college graduate who taught him how to read. Jones talks about "the power of the kitchen table." Gathered around it, she, her older brother and her parents discussed everything during mealtimes.

Now, at 49, she heads a staff of 80 employees and oversees 28 lawyers litigating a docket of more than 300 cases. As director-counsel of LDF, Jones administers a $9.5 million budget that she also has to raise-without resorting to government funding, since the government is often LDF'S opponent in court.

The legal challenges LDF faces are, sadly, much as they were in 1940, when the organization began. They involve battles against discrimination in the areas of education, housing, employment, voting rights, capital punishment and the general administration of justice. Newer on the agenda are issues of healthcare accessibility and environmental protection - both of which Jones lists high among her priorities.

"Civil rights is not a narrow issue," Jones explains in defense of her organization's broad agenda. "Anything that improves the quality of our lives and lessens the suffering and discrimination of black people helps society as a whole."

Jones will zero in on the Supreme Court's J.A. Croson v. City of Richmond decision, in which the high court found municipal minority-contract set-aside programs illegal unless past discrimination was documented by the municipality in question. "You still have set-asides, but you've got to jump through all kinds of hoops to get them," she says. "We've got to get that overturned to make sure African-Americans are not just employees, but employers as well."

Although LDF's cases usually stem from small, localized incidents, they almost always grow to encompass nationwide significance. Earlier this year, LDF lawyers negotiated a landmark settlement in its case against Shoney's Inc., after exposing a pattern of ingrained race discrimination in hiring and promoting the restaurant chain's employees throughout 759 of the company's establishments in 39 states. The $105 million settlement is the highest ever in a case of this kind.

Many lawsuits, particularly such mammoth ones, aren't settled, however. LDF has brought more cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other legal body outside of the Solicitor's General's Office of the U.S. Department of Justice.

If the issues LDF is grappling with are rather traditional, the internal challenges it faces are strictly '90s corporate America: How to do more with less. As money grows harder to come by, the costs of litigation and running a national practice are moving further and further off the map. Seven months into her tenure at the helm of the civil rights movement's most venerable legal organization, Jones must find innovative solutions to LDF's internal and external struggles, while plotting a bold new agenda for the agency.

"I don't have the system in place yet," she says, the southern sway of her native Norfolk, Va., rounding off her words. "But catch me in a year, girl. Things are going to be running smooth."

Right now, though, "running" seems to be the operative word. in a single week, Jones travelled from her New York base (where she led several staff meetings and spoke before a gathering of corporate executives at a dinner hosted by Mayor David Dinkins in her honor) to Washington, D.C., where she schmoozed a couple of senators and met with D.C. staff members. Then she jetted to Los Angeles to discuss pending cases with West Coast staffers and charm some potential corporate patrons and two LDF board members. Hurrying back to Washington, D.C., she addressed a two-day conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice that cut her weekend in half. As she was logging some of the 200,000 air miles she expects to travel this year, Jones prepared for her first meeting with LDF'S 90-member board of directors to be held the following week.

Caught between appointments back in New York, Jones conceded that her plate runneth over just a bit, but she offers no indication of cutting back. In her new role - and as the first woman to hold it - she can't afford to let a moment slip by unfilled. Like Rev. Benjamin Chavis, who earlier this year was named executive director of the NAACP (the organization that originated the LDF), Jones must create and lead battle plans against ever more complex forms of racial injustice.

After the 12-year Reagan-bush era, during which time many of the civil rights gains of the '60s were reversed or went unenforced, there is much work to be done. And Jones appears to be just the type of person to do it.

Building Coalitions Amidst Chaos

She has a rare gift. Jones is believable and instantly likeable. She has a common touch that in no way undermines her lightning quick intellect. And she knows it. "I've always been plain-spoken, without guile," Jones says. "Whatever I tell you is what I think. That honesty has worked for me. And when times are the worst, that's when honesty serves us best."

If that's true, then Jones will be calling upon that "honesty" in spades. Although she puts a can-do face on things, Jones has ascended to LDF's top spot at a point when the organization and the country are at a difficult and crucial crossroads. For more than a decade, the group was forced to struggle against losing the civil rights gains it had already won. Now, with images of a bruised and brutalized Rodney King still emblazoned in the nation's consciousness, it's time to get back to the business of making new strides in civil rights.

To do that, LDF will have to expand its reach beyond lawmakers and courtrooms to community groups and politicians. "I have to broaden the role of the LDF, without becoming a legal aid society," says Jones.

Things are much more complicated now than they were in the early days of the LDF, says one LDF insider. "LDF is in the midst of that chaos. The goals used to be clear and everyone wanted the same things. That's not the way it is now."

Coalitions are becoming all-important. Whether it's teaming up with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund to keep a Harlem hospital from moving its services uptown or working with the West Dallas Coalition for Environmental Justice to fight for the cleanup of polluted soil in a poor Texas neighborhood, coming together with other groups is a necessary "power move," says Jones. But with so many factions within the civil rights arena and so many egos at play, such alliances are not easy to build.

Beyond that, LDF has a bit of an image problem. The 53-year-old organization is still largely associated with its founder and first director-counsel, the late Associate Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, his hallmark case Brown v. Board of Education and the NAACP. Its history is rich, but Jones must beware of letting the organization get trapped by the vestiges of the past.

LDF has had three leaders since Marshall - Jones is the fourth. It has fought and won innumerable lawsuits since Brown. In addition to the Shoney's victory, since Jones took over, LDF convinced the state of California to provide free lead poisoning tests for 500,000 poor children, mostly black and Hispanic. California was the first state to buckle after LDF filed suit in Texas over this issue in five states (Colorado, New York and North Carolina are the others).

Still, pressed to name one major LDF victory in the last 25 years, even the well-informed are likely to come up blank. Jones, who counts among her admirers many in the biting Washington press (a former Legal Times columnist once suggested her for the U.S. Supreme Court), must keep LDF's name and achievements in the spotlight.

As for its alliance with the NAACP, for tax purposes the groups split more than 30 years ago, since then operating as completely distinct groups with separate budgets, boards and priorities. The lingering confusion over their relationship is a problem only when it comes to fund-raising. Yet at a time when filling the coffers is tougher than ever, that is a problem LDF can ill afford.

Compounding the economic crunch facing all nonprofit groups today is the "struggle-is-over" mentality fostered by Reagan-bush allies. Given that the last thing Jones needs is people making out checks to the NAACP believing the money is going to LDF. Set against the backdrop of skyrocketing litigation costs and LDF's need for capital improvements (like a new phone system and the computerized integration of its offices), the distinction becomes even more important. Without the money, everything else stops.

Knowing When To Push, When To Pull No Punches

If anyone was prepared to hit the ground running at LDF, it was Jones. When the board began casting about for a new director-counsel to replace Julius L. Chambers last year, Jones was their instinctive choice. She had proven herself a tireless and outspoken advocate for civil rights as well as a dedicated manager, litigator, strategist and justice seeker over her many years with LDF. As its deputy director-counsel since 1988, Jones was Chambers' alter ego, running the group's D.C. office and spearheading its legislative advocacy efforts (Jones rejects the label "lobbyist") on Capital Hill.

Her diligence, persuasiveness and unique ability to build coalitions among competing factions has earned her a reputation as a political mastermind. Dr. Joseph Lowery, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), calls her "informed, brilliant and practical."

LDF attorney Kerry Scanlon, LDF'S assistant counsel, worked closely with Jones in pushing the embattled Civil Rights Bill of 1991 through to passage. "In the most difficult situations, Elaine would always have the best judgments on when to push and when not to, or who the key people were to talk to. She's a person who steps in at critical points to bring things to closure," he says.

Just to make sure they weren't prejudiced in favor of her, however, LDF'S board considered about 30 other candidates both inside and outside the organization, recalls board member Karen Hastie Williams, adding, "It was no contest."

Jones' place in the history books was secured in 1967 when the Howard University honors student became the first black woman to graduate from the University of Virginie School of Law. After accepting a job atwall Street's Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander-a rare opportunity for an African-american back in 1970-Jones reneged at the last minute, opting forthe calling closestto her heart.

"I always wanted to work with my own people," says Jones. "I thought I'd go back to Norfolk, hang out my shingle, and handle anything that walked in the door."

Instead, at the urging of her law school dean Jack Greenberg, she went to LDF as one of three lawyers arguing death penalty cases throughout the South. In 1973, she became managing attorney in the New York office, quickly mastering the administrative duties involved in overseeing a law practice. After a brief respite, between 1975 and 1977, working as a special assistant to then U.S. Secretary of Transportation William T. Coleman Jr., Jones returned to LDF to head its new Washington office and to become its first official logislative advocate.

In that position, Jones honed her skills as a penetrating voice, even through dense opposition. I've seen her many, many times go into meetings with members of Congress or senators against considerable pressure," says Scanlon. "She has a way of presenting an argument that recognizes and understands a person's position. [Then] she goes beyond that to explain why [her position] is in fact in their best interest."

In 1988, Jones was promoted to deputy director-counsel under Chambers. She functioned as his third arm, handling most of her previous duties in addition to his overflow. This meant tending to virtually everything from overseeing the battalion of private lawyers who donate services and resources to LDF cases, to making speeches and attending funerals on Chambers' behalf.

High on her list of responsibilities was the monitoring of federal judicial appointments as well as the civil rights initiatives of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Her provocative input on judicial nominations peppers stacks and stacks of transcripts. Scores of briefs in support of or against Reagan-bush nominees bear her eloquent mark.

She was instrumental in preventing the appointment of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. When President Bush nominated William Lucas, a black, Michigan lawyer, for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in 1989, Jones riled the SCLC's Lowery and other Lucas supporters, many of whom were black, by speaking out against him. Publicly declaring Lucas unqualified for the job, Jones said at the time, "We do not fight to do a job simply because we're black. It is demeaning." Lucas' nomination was defeated.

During the 1991 confirmation hearings of Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Jones was a welcome regular on The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour. She told its nationwide audience, "The Clarence Thomas of today and yesterday wrapped himself in the cloak of Martin Luther King and cited Fannie Lou Hamer, and talked about Thurgood Marshall, yet that same preconfirmation Clarence Thomas ridiculed Thurgood Marshall. Not only that, he ran around the country for every conservative group criticizing and castigating civil rights decisions that the Supreme Court had been struggling with ... Where is the real Clarence Thomas?"

Breaking Down Barriers With Letters - and The Law

Partly because of the High Court's currently conservative nature, partly due to the increasing costs and complexities of advancing a civil rights agenda, Jones is figuring out ways to expand LDF's activities. "When Thurgood [Marshall] was head of LDF, litigation was really his best help," she says. Now, we litigate because we know it is effective, but you can't litigate alone. I want us to expand, so we're no longer limited to courtrooms and briefs. We should be appearing before school boards and senate committees. I want to resolve some of these matters without ever going to court."

LDF has already started, serving as a backstage strategist and liaison between the Los Angeles police and the black community in the midst of the crisis surrounding last year's beating of Rodney King. And when residents of Daufuskie Island, S.C. - perhaps the only pocket of the U.S. where descendants of slaves have maintained the traditions of their West African ancestry - felt the squeeze from big real estate developers who sent property costs skyrocketing, LDF intervened. Their weapon was not a lawsuit, but a simple letter to two large resort developers and Beaufort County officials pointing out that black families, who had settled on the island more than 120 years ago, were being systematically forced off their land to make way for tony resorts. LDF is currently working with the letter's recipients to appease the strain.

"When we sit down at the table beside those poor black people, then and only then do developers want to know what they can do to make amends," says Jones. "I want to see more of that."

Running quickly through the negative images of blacks so often highlighted by the media, Jones slows the pace when she says, "We are a wonderful, competent, vibrant people. All we need is opportunity. I want my life to help create that opportunity. I'm not the social worker. I'm not the parole officer. What I do is understand the operation of the law and how it helps to limit legitimate, lawful opportunities for black people.

"My job is to break down those barriers."
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Title Annotation:lawyer Elaine R. Jones
Author:Sapers, Jonathan
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Biography
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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