Ethnic-rights Lawsuits

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1969

Upon deciding to make a major push for black rights during the 1960s, the Ford Foundation started funding the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (see 1967 entry). It quickly expanded that effort by setting up similar organizations to launch lawsuits on behalf of other minority groups. (This went beyond lawsuits alone. Ford also funded groups like the Mexican American Youth Organization, a militant arm of the Chicano movement that preached separatism, disseminated revolutionary literature, sponsored visits to Cuba, and registered voters.)

One ethnic litigator receiving Ford Foundation money was the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. MALDEF received its first Ford grant in 1969: $2.2 million of startup sponsorship. By 1973, MALDEF had attracted additional donors, but the Ford Foundation still supplied about half of its budget. The group plunged into voting-rights battles, guaranteeing the creation of Hispanic-majority jurisdictions around the country. In 1982, it won a Supreme Court ruling that public schools must open their doors to illegal aliens. The organization filed lawsuits on affirmative action, immigrant rights, and election redistricting. It had a budget of more than $6 million in 2013.

The Native American Rights Fund was also bankrolled by Ford, starting with a pilot grant of $155,000 in 1970, another $95,000 the next year, and a three-year grant of $1.2 million in 1972. NARF had grown into a $9.4 million-per-year organization by 2013.

The Ford Foundation also supported the creation of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1972. Many of its lawsuits focused on language rights. Today the group is known as LatinoJustice, with a budget just under $3 million. It frequently works in conjunction with NAACP-LDF and MALDEF.

Between 1967 and 1975, the Ford Foundation spent $18 million specifically to create and build up civil-rights litigation groups; their lawsuits redirected many aspects of American public policy and social practice in ensuing years.