The Obama administration official who headed the Justice Department’s civil rights division will become the first woman to run the nation’s largest civil and human rights coalition at a time when advocates fear the Trump administration will roll back voting access and criminal justice reform.
Longtime civil rights litigator and advocate Vanita Gupta was chosen Thursday as the new president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella organization founded 67 years ago that represents 200 national groups.
Gupta, 42, an Indian American lawyer, will also be the first child of immigrants to head the organization, which has been run for nearly 20 years by civil rights leader Wade Henderson. Gupta will take the reins of the Leadership Conference on June 1.
“This organization is perfectly situated to address the current assault on civil rights that we are seeing today,” Gupta said. “I think it’s unfortunate that we’re in such a polarized time and these issues appear to be politicized when fundamentally they are about the character of the country and what the country stands for.”
Three years ago, President Barack Obama appointed Gupta, who was the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, to serve as the principal deputy assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. She became known for her aggressive work prosecuting hate crimes and human trafficking, promoting disability rights, protecting the rights of LGBTQ individuals and fighting for voter access.
During her tenure, Gupta oversaw federal investigations of the Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., police departments; a discrimination lawsuit against North Carolina for reversing an ordinance that extended rights to people who are gay or transgender, and the successful appeals of Texas and North Carolina voter ID cases — all issues that provoked a fiery debate among Republican opponents of the measures.
“I was honored to have been at the helm of the civil rights division at a time where civil rights issues were front and center,” Gupta said. “Now, we are quite swiftly in a new day at a time of great division on these issues.”
In his first month as attorney general, Jeff Sessions has taken steps to undo the Justice Department’s policy toward transgender students in public schools, reversed the department’s position on a Texas voting rights law found unconstitutional by several courts, changed the administration’s policy on the use of private prisons and said he will be much tougher on crime by increasing the prosecution of drug and gun offenses. Sessions has also tied a recent increase in violent crime to a lack of respect for police officers and vowed that his department would be more supportive of law enforcement.
Gupta is the younger of two daughters of Indian parents who immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. She grew up in Philadelphia, graduated from Yale University and New York University Law School and has devoted her career to civil rights issues.
Her work on criminal justice reform has won the respect of liberals such as former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. and conservatives including Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, and David Keene, a former president of the National Rifle Association, who has praised Gupta’s “collaborative approach.” She is the mother of two sons, and her husband is the legal director of the D.C. Legal Aid Society.
The Leadership Conference was founded in 1950 by Arnold Aronson, A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins and has coordinated advocates to lobby on behalf of every major civil rights law. Gupta will head the conference and the conference education fund.
“When Wade announced his decision, we set out to find an exceptional individual, someone with a passion for advocacy, a record of achievement, a strategic vision and the skills to lead our organizations, our dynamic coalition and this nation to a more just and inclusive future,” said Judith Lichtman, chair of the Leadership Conference board. “Vanita is that individual.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Roy Wilkins as the sole founder of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Wilkins co-founded the organization with Arnold Aronson and A. Philip Randolph.