The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights on Thursday announced that it and its sister organization, The Leadership Conference Education Fund, had selected civil rights litigator and advocate Vanita Gupta to assume the leadership of both organizations. The chairs of the two organizations’ boards made the announcement after a joint board meeting to ratify the consensus recommendation of a 16-member joint board search committee.
Gupta, who most recently served in President Obama’s administration as the head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, will officially begin on June 1. Wade Henderson, who announced his retirement in November 2015, has led the organizations for nearly 21 years.
“At a time when our nation’s ideals and progress are being threatened in such fundamental ways, The Leadership Conference is a vital nerve center of the broad swath of civil and human rights organizations that are fighting for justice, fairness, and equality around the country,” Gupta said. “Civil and human rights work has never been easy, and these unprecedented times demand a clarity of vision, strategy, and solidarity that the Leadership Conference coalition is uniquely positioned to champion. I am honored and humbled to take on this essential work to guarantee that justice and equality apply to every individual as we struggle to be a more perfect union and remain a beacon for hope in the world.”
“Wade Henderson will go down as one of the all-time great civil and human rights leaders. A true visionary and a brilliant leader, Wade has fundamentally transformed both The Leadership Conference and The Education Fund into the indispensable organizations they are today. It is my privilege to follow in his footsteps and build on his legacy in these challenging times.”
Obama appointed Gupta as principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in October 2014, where she served until January. As the nation’s chief civil rights prosecutor during one of the division’s highest profile and most productive eras, Gupta oversaw a wide range of criminal and civil enforcement efforts to ensure equal justice and protect equal opportunity for all.
“When I announced my decision to step down as head of The Leadership Conference, I noted that the day-to-day work of civil rights advocacy is critically important, but on its own, is not enough,” Henderson said. “Leaders also have the responsibility to cultivate, encourage and make paths for the next generation to lead and to thrive. That time has come for me, and I could not be more pleased to pass the baton of leadership to Vanita, a talented litigator, strategic visionary and tireless advocate who is deeply committed to building a country as good as its ideals, the mission of The Leadership Conference.”
Read more about the announcement here and below.
Hon. Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General
“Throughout her career, Vanita has pushed our nation to live up to its promise of equal justice for all. Her fearless advocacy for the rights of all Americans, while at the helm of the Civil Rights Division, proves that she will be able to lead the important coalition of the Leadership Conference member organizations. Vanita’s ability to bridge divides and build coalitions to drive progress will enable her to build on Wade Henderson’s incredible legacy.”
Hon. Sally Yates, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General
“From criminal justice reform to voting rights to disability rights to LGBTQ equality, Vanita has the experience and tenacity to continue The Leadership Conference’s tradition of advancing and defending our most precious rights. Her optimism and clear-eyed pragmatism will ensure that The Leadership Conference continues its strong tradition of building bridges and protecting the interests of all communities.”
Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU
“Vanita Gupta is one of the ACLU’s star alums—following in the steps of individuals like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Aryeh Neier. She started here as a line litigator—taking on seemingly intractable issues like immigration detention and criminal justice. She swiftly rose through the ranks and became our deputy legal director, and then mapped out the ACLU’s groundbreaking work to fight mass incarceration. In doing so, she marshaled the ACLU’s litigation and advocacy firepower and reached out across partisan lines to push criminal justice reform. She’s a once-in-a-generation leader who is perfectly poised to lead The Leadership Conference through one of the most challenging civil rights and civil liberties crisis of our time.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League
“In these incredibly challenging times, the board of The Leadership Conference wisely has chosen a leader who is respected across the political spectrum and who has worked to forge consensus to advance civil and human rights. In a time where we have seen a surge of hate crimes and rising levels of intolerance, Vanita’s extensive experience in advocating for minorities will ensure that The Leadership Conference will continue to play a pivotal role as a voice for all Americans.”
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign
“Vanita Gupta is a tenacious fighter for justice who has spent her life advocating for the most vulnerable members of our society. She led the Civil Rights Division during some of its most high-profile work to protect and advance the rights of LGBTQ individuals. She was unrelenting and strategic in confronting the ongoing threat to the LBGTQ community across the country, including the landmark litigation against North Carolina’s discriminatory HB2 and guidance on schools’ Title IX obligations for transgender students. I look forward to having her as a partner and a leader in the civil rights movement as the next president and CEO of The Leadership Conference.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
“Vanita Gupta is an extraordinary choice and we at the NAACP LDF are especially proud given her long and impressive tenure at LDF. Her tireless work on behalf of 38 defendants wrongfully convicted in a drug sting in Tulia, Texas, and a $6 million settlement is legendary. As a colleague at the ACLU, and later as the leader of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, Vanita has shown that she is at the forefront of bold, imaginative and uncompromising civil rights leadership. She is a fearless advocate who is precisely the kind of leader our coalition needs to meet this challenging moment.”
Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance
“I’ve known Wade Henderson since our early days in the ACLU in the 1980s and watched his emergence as a national civil rights icon. In filling Wade’s shoes, we could not have chosen better than Vanita Gupta, perhaps the leading civil rights advocate of her generation, from her groundbreaking litigation as a young lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to overseeing the ACLU’s work for criminal justice reform, to serving as the nation’s chief civil rights officer at the most consequential time since the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. In each role, Vanita has proven a powerful advocate, skilled litigator, and coalition builder able to forge unusual alliances. I am confident she will build on Wade’s legacy to strengthen The Leadership Conference to play a pivotal role in the challenging years ahead.”
Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League
“The selection of Vanita Gupta to become the next president and CEO of The Leadership Conference is an inspired choice for the times in which we live. Vanita will be the first female leader of this venerable institution and the first child of immigrants to serve as president. That perspective combined with her long career advocating for voting rights, challenging economic inequality, and fighting for those caught in the criminal justice system, overwhelmingly black and brown, will ensure The Leadership Conference remains at the center of the civil and human rights struggles moving forward.”
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF
“Succeeding a twenty-year president of The Leadership Conference is a daunting assignment; it requires someone of stature, experience, and great integrity. The Leadership Conference has selected someone meeting those requirements who also brings a breadth of involvement in multiple civil rights issues affecting so many of the communities that together have ensured our nation’s tremendous success. That is precisely what is required as we enter an era of unprecedented threat to civil rights.”
Lee Saunders, president of the AFSCME
“Vanita Gupta is an exceptional choice for The Leadership Conference in this time of major challenge. She has time and again demonstrated her commitment to equal protection under the law with emphasis on voting rights, education reform and workers’ rights. Vanita has long understood that workers’ rights are civil and human rights and the labor community is excited to work with her as the new leader of this essential coalition.”
Vanita Gupta is an experienced leader and litigator who has devoted her entire career to civil rights work. Most recently, from October 15, 2014, to January 20, 2017, she served as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Appointed by President Barack Obama as the chief civil rights prosecutor for the United States, Gupta oversaw a wide range of criminal and civil enforcement efforts to ensure equal justice and protect equal opportunity for all during one of the most consequential periods for the division.
Under Gupta’s leadership, the division did critical work in a number of areas, including advancing constitutional policing and criminal justice reform; prosecuting hate crimes and human trafficking; promoting disability rights; protecting the rights of LGBTQ individuals; ensuring voting rights for all; and combating discrimination in education, housing, employment, lending, and religious exercise. She regularly engaged with a broad range of stakeholders in the course of this work.
Selected high profile matters during her tenure included the investigations of the Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago police departments; the appeals of the Texas and North Carolina voter ID cases; the challenge to North Carolina’s HB2 law and other transgender rights litigation; enforcement of education, land use, hate crimes, and other statutes to combat Islamophobia and other forms of religious discrimination; the issuance of statements of interest on bail and indigent defense reform, and letters to state and local court judges and administrators on the unlawful imposition of fines and fees in criminal justice system; and the Administration’s report on solitary confinement.
Prior to joining the Justice Department, Gupta served as Deputy Legal Director and the Director of the Center for Justice at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She joined the ACLU in 2006 as a staff attorney, where she subsequently secured a landmark settlement on behalf of immigrant children from around the world detained in a privately-run prison in Texas that ultimately led to the end of “family detention” at the facility. In addition to managing a robust litigation docket at the ACLU, Gupta created and led the organization’s Smart Justice Campaign aimed at ending mass incarceration while keeping communities safe. She worked with law enforcement agencies, corrections officials, advocates, stakeholders, and elected officials across the political spectrum to build collaborative support for pretrial, drug, and sentencing policies that make our federal, state, and local criminal justice systems more effective and more just.
Gupta began her legal career as an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, where she successfully led the effort to overturn the wrongful drug convictions of 38 individuals in Tulia, Texas, who were ultimately pardoned by Governor Rick Perry. She then helped negotiate a $6 million settlement on behalf of her clients. She also consulted with European civil society organizations working to advance the rights of the Roma.
Gupta graduated magna cum laude from Yale University and received her law degree from New York University School of Law, where later she taught a civil rights clinic for several years.
She is married to Chinh Q. Le and they have two young sons.
About the Organizations
Known for decades as the lobbying arm of the civil rights movement, The Leadership Conference has coordinated the advocacy on behalf of every major civil rights law since it was founded in 1950 by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Arnold Aronson of the organization now known as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The Education Fund, founded in 1969 as the research and public education arm of the coalition, builds public and political will for policies and laws that promote and protect the civil and human rights of all.
Both organizations have grown to complement their policy expertise with a strong field and communications capacity to conduct public education campaigns that leverage a range of diverse voices to empower and mobilize advocates around the country to advance progressive change at the local, state and federal level.
Henderson joined The Leadership Conference—then known as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights—in 1996 after serving as Washington Bureau chief of the NAACP and associate director of the ACLU. Under his leadership, the coalition has grown from 180 to more than 200 member organizations—including its first Muslim and Sikh civil rights groups—and from a staff of 7 to 50—adding development, field, and communications departments, as well as the Americans for Financial Reform project.
The Leadership Conference—which formally added “Human Rights” to its name in 2010—has greatly expanded the capacity of domestic U.S. civil and human rights organizations to engage on international human rights concerns and championed the U.S. ratification of international civil and human rights treaties. It regularly participates in or leads delegations to the United Nations to review American progress on human rights treaty obligations and to key international conferences on discrimination like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s conferences on anti-Semitism in 2004 and 2014, among many others.
On May 17, Henderson will be presented with the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award, the civil and human rights coalition’s highest honor. The award will be presented during The Leadership Conference’s annual dinner at the Washington Hilton.