WASHINGTON ― The former top official at the Obama Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is taking over the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a 67-year-old organization sometimes described as the lobbying arm of the civil rights movement.
Vanita Gupta, who ran the Civil Rights Division for the last two-plus years of the Obama administration, was named the next president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Thursday. Later this year, she will succeed Wade Henderson, who has served as president and CEO since 1996 and helped grow the organization into a coalition of more than 200 civil and human rights groups.
Gupta, 42, began her legal career at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she fought for dozens of people in a tiny Texas town who had been locked up on the lies of a racist rodeo cowboy paid by police to conduct drug stings. She served as deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In October 2014, just months after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Gupta was named acting head of the Civil Rights Division. On her watch, the Justice Department issued a damning report on the operations of Ferguson’s police department and municipal court in early 2015 and later released other critical reports on the Baltimore and Chicago police forces. The Justice Department reached deals with officials in Ferguson and Baltimore to improve their law enforcement practices, while a potential agreement with Chicago remains in question under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Gupta said initiatives that the Civil Rights Division championed during the Obama administration are “quite vulnerable” in the Trump era. The groups that make up the Leadership Conference, she said, are at the “heart of the resistance” fighting rollbacks of civil rights protections.
“We’re going to have to use the power of the field operation here at the Leadership Conference and the member organizations to mobilize an American public that right now is really eager to fight back and to resist assaults on the very values that we all hold dear,” Gupta said.
She sees the Leadership Conference as a “nerve center” for both defending civil rights on the federal level and pushing forward to advance civil rights on the state level.
The member organizations of the Leadership Conference have a crucial role to play during the Trump era in her view. “We can’t rely on Congress to be a check on the executive branch right now,” Gupta said.
It was gratifying, she added, to see people “of all stripes, religions and races coming together” in response to the Trump administration’s travel ban.
“I think this is a time of unprecedented solidarity among the groups that make up the Leadership Conference to recognize that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” said Gupta. “For me, this opportunity could not come at a better time, because I think we all know very well, and all too well, what’s at stake.”
Several civil rights leaders applauded Gupta’s appointment. Former Attorney General Eric Holder praised her “fearless advocacy for the rights of all Americans.” Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, called her a “once-in-a-generation leader.” Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said Gupta was at the “forefront of bold, imaginative and uncompromising civil rights leadership.”
Gupta, who worked closely on policing issues at the Justice Department, said she was troubled by the Trump administration’s indications that the department will pull back from the broad reform efforts pursued by the Obama administration.
“It is a huge, radical departure for this Justice Department to step away from that work,” Gupta said.
But “even if this Justice Department is out of step with what’s happening around this country,” she said, civil rights advocates and policing organizations have an important role to play in pushing reform forward.
“The role of local community input in holding local officials accountable to enforcement has always been really important, and there will be a role for the Leadership Conference to play in lifting up those community voices and the member organizations that are really engaged on that,” Gupta said.