The work of addressing America’s inequality and injustice is dependent on the courage of ordinary people to do all they can to preserve democracy, renowned civil rights activist Sherrilyn Ifill told the crowd gathered recently during her visit to Tulane.
In her call to action, Ifill, a long-time civil rights attorney and former President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, warned that American democracy is presently facing significant threats and depends on the rule of law and the willingness of lawyers to step up in its defense.
“If our profession collapses,” Ifill told the crowd of mostly lawyers and academics, “we’re done. There is a lot resting on our shoulders. If we want to save American democracy, we must ensure there is equality, justice, and opportunity for all.”
Ifill was the keynote speaker at the 2nd Tulane Black Law Alumni Reunion, held at Tulane Law School Feb. 2-5. More than 300 Black law alumni of the school, many of them trailblazers in the profession in the early 70s and 80s, returned to campus for three days of reunion activities.
In her remarks, Ifill spoke about social justice and the state of the Civil Rights Movement. She also sat with alumnus and attorney Tim Francis (L’84) for an informal conversation about everything from her early career to how the current political and legal landscape might shape the future of civil rights.
Ifill was characteristically candid. She warned that American democracy is being threatened by efforts to roll back recent progress toward broader voting rights and the inclusion of historically marginalized groups. She suggested that white supremacy is being normalized across America and that limiting the rights of minorities is part of the agenda of some in the halls of power. She also contended that the current retrenchment of the rights of people of color stems from fears of eroding political clout and privilege caused by demographic trends toward a more ethnically and racially diverse electorate.
“It is going to take the work of all of us,” Ifill said. “All of us deciding to do the hard work. And that means that voting every four years is not enough. We must show up and vote in local elections, to work to elect – or better yet, run yourself – good people for school boards, of calling our Senators and of volunteering as poll workers. It is not enough to vote and think we’re done. We must do the hard work of choosing better leaders and of creating change ourselves.”
Ifill cited the 2020 election in Georgia, where a record-breaking number of voters elected Democratic senators including the state’s first Black senator. The state has since passed laws limiting the number of polling places on election day, the length of early voting, and made it illegal to provide water to those standing in long lines. All of which, she said, was done with the goal to weaken the future turnout and political influence of Black and brown Georgians.
“Everything that has happened since has been in response to our show of power,” Ifill said, referring to the historic voter turnout among African Americans in the last election cycle.
She noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has been plagued by ethics scandals that must be addressed as they are for other federal judges. She reminded the audience of efforts in Florida and elsewhere to prevent the teaching of Black history in a way that might make white students feel uncomfortable. And she pointed to the high court’s recent oral arguments in a case that could end race-conscious admissions in colleges, which would undermine access to higher education for minorities.
“When I read The Diary of Anne Frank I felt shame, I felt guilt and I was personally uncomfortable,” she said. “I was not a Nazi and I didn’t cause this pain, but I had empathy. Now, some Americans, they see that empathy in their children when they read about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement and they had to cut it off.”
“If we think progress is inevitable,” Ifill warned, “we’d better wake up.”
Since leaving the NAACP Ifill has joined the Ford Foundation as a Senior Fellow, continuing her work and scholarship in civil rights, and voting rights. She holds the title of President and Director-Counsel Emeritus of the LDF, the second woman to ever lead the 1940s-era organization founded by the legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshal. LDF was seminal in developing and executing the legal strategy that brought about the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v Board of Education.
Ifill began her career as a Fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, before joining the staff of the LDF as an Assistant Counsel in 1988, where she litigated voting rights cases for five years. In 1993, she left LDF to join the faculty at University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. For more than 20 years, she taught civil procedure and constitutional law to thousands of law students, and pioneered a series of law clinics, including one of the earliest law clinics in the country focused on challenging legal barriers to the reentry of ex-offenders.
Ifill is also a prolific scholar who has published academic articles in leading law journals, and op-eds and commentaries in leading newspapers. Her 2007 book On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, was highly acclaimed and is credited with laying the foundation for contemporary conversations about lynching and reconciliation.