Dinner chair Angela Vallot, Judith Byrd, William M. Lewis Jr. (presenter), dinner vice chair Dr. Lydia Mallett, Bruce Gordon, Tawana Tibbs

*The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), America’s premier legal organization fighting for racial justice while striving for racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans by expanding democracy and eliminating disparities built on four pillars of equality — economic justice, criminal justice, education and political participation – hosted its annual National Equal Justice Award Dinner (NEJAD) at the Hilton New York & Towers Hotel in New York City on Thursday, November 4, 2011 and raised nearly $2.5 million.

The superior event which attracted over 700 legal luminaries began with a networking reception at 6:30pm followed by dinner and an impressive program at 7:30pm.  This year marked NEJAD’s 25th anniversary and in honor of this milestone anniversary NEJAD presented three awards:

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP received the inaugural NEJAD Law Firm of the Year Award; Clarence Otis, chairman & chief executive officer of Darden Restaurants received the National Equal Justice Award; and Theodore V. Wells, Jr., partner and co-chair of litigation, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and a former LDF board co-chair, received the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award.

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom was acknowledged for their long-term dedication to LDF through the Skadden Fellowship Program for more than 20 years; along with their deep commitment to public interest work and the extraordinary leadership and accomplishments of the late Joseph H. FlomEric J. Friedman, executive partner, accepted the award on behalf of the law firm from Raymond J. McGuire, head of global banking, Citigroup, Inc., and a long-time LDF friend and supporter.

Dinner vice chair Gabriella Morris, LDF board member Judith Byrd, honoree Theodore V. Wells, LDF board member Tonya Lewis Lee, LDF president John Payton, dinner vice chair Dr. Lydia Mallett, dinner chair Angela Vallot, emcee Deborah Roberts, honoree Eric J. Friedman, Antoinette Cook Bush

Clarence Otis was honored for his exemplary leadership of Darden, the world’s largest full-service restaurant company.  Darden has a stellar reputation for its commitment to diversity and inclusion in all areas of the company and for its support of organizations that promote post-secondary education initiatives for underserved youth throughout the country.  William M. Lewis, Jr., co-chairman, investment banking, Lazard, and LDF board co-chair emeritus made the presentation.

Theodore (Ted) V. Wells, Jr., partner and co-chair of litigation, Paul Weiss, Rifkind, Whartton & Garrison LLP, and an esteemed member of LDF’s board of directors, has played an integral role in furthering LDF’s mission and garnering support and visibility for the organization’s legal program.  In his role as board co-chair, a position that he held for five years, Wells has been instrumental in securing much needed support of LDF, and particularly NEJAD, from the legal, corporate and philanthropic communities. His legal acumen has assisted LDF with some of its most complex legal arguments.  The award was presented by Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., senior managing director, Lazard, and a member of LDF board of directors.

During dinner John Payton, LDF president and director-counsel, discussed the organization’s recent success record and also the challenges that lie ahead.  Payton also paid tribute to the late Derrick Bell, the law school professor whose work and writings inspired legions of law students over the last four decades. Bell, an LDF attorney in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was the last LDF attorney hired by Thurgood Marshall before he was appointed to the federal bench.

The event also included a short film that featured a selection of LDF’s distinguished former attorneys, including Deval Patrick, Governor Commonwealth of Massachusetts; Lani Guinier, Bennett Boskey, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; David Kendall, partner, Williams & Connolly LLP; Pamela Karlan, Kenneth and Harle Montgomery professor of public interest law and co-director, Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, Stanford Law School; Chinh Le, legal director, Legal Aid Society, District of Columbia; Melvin Watt, US Congressman, North Carolina; and Jacqueline Berrien, chair, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Dr. Angela Vallot, partner, VallotKarp Consulting and one of LDF’s newest board members, served as dinner chair.  LDF board member Gabriella E. Morris and Dr. Lydia G. Mallett, vice president, staffing & diversity, Tyco International, served as dinner vice chairs.  Deborah Roberts, correspondent, ABC News 20/20, returned as Mistress of Ceremonies.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is the country’s first and foremost civil and human rights law firm.  Founded in 1940 under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, who subsequently became the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, LDF was launched at a time when the nation’s aspirations for equality and due process of law were stifled by widespread state-sponsored racial inequality.  From that era to the present, LDF’s mission has always been transformative: to achieve racial justice, equality, and an inclusive society.  (Photos by Stephanie Badini)

Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.