Career & Jobs

Democracy Defender Sherrilyn Ifill On Her Legacy And Future In The Fight For Equality

In 2020 Glamour dubbed Sherrilyn Ifill “a civil rights superhero” which may seem like public relations hyperbole to some…but they likely don’t know the force of nature that is Sherrilyn Ifill.

In 1988 when Sherrilyn Ifill began her career at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) as a young civil rights lawyer litigating voting rights cases, the top grossing movie was Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, George Michael’s Faith topped the annual Billboard charts and Ronald Reagan was president. Five years later, Ifill left the historic organization to spend the next two decades teaching civil procedure and constitutional law to thousands of University of Maryland law students and writing On the Courthouse Work: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century before rejoining the Thurgood Marshall-founded, non-partisan organization in 2013 as its seventh President and Director-Counsel.

During Ifill’s near decade leading one of the nation’s most revered civil and human rights institutions, she not only expanded its reach but also elevated its profile to bring LDF’s work into mainstream conversation, tenaciously making the case that LDF’s work is nothing less than defending and maintaining democracy. She did one more thing along the way…. She got results.

Under Ifill’s leadership, the organization achieved remarkable gains advancing civil rights with particular focus on voter suppression, inequity in education, economic disparities and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Some of LDF’s recent accomplishments and ongoing work include the following:

· Challenging the Trump administration’s “Executive Order (EO) on Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping” which placed unprecedented restrictions on diversity training. (The EO was later rescinded by the Biden-Harris administration.)

· Combatting hair discrimination by fighting for the CROWN Act—recently passed by the House of Representatives—to become law in all 50 states.

· Establishing the Thurgood Marshall Institute, a multidisciplinary center supporting research and targeted advocacy campaigns and housing LDF’s archives.

· Establishing the Marshall-Motley Scholars Program designed to support and train the next generation of civil rights lawyers to serve the South in the legacy of Thurgood Marshall.

· Litigating Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a case challenging Harvard’s holistic admissions policy.

· Relentlessly defending voting rights through LDF’s Prepared to Vote and Voting Rights Defender projects

· Executing the Pro-Truth Campaign to combat recent legislation introduced by 25+ states to restrict or ban instruction of our nation’s history.

While LDF’s accomplishments under her leadership are awe inspiring, Ifill has arguably been more than just the most senior executive. She’s been a force of nature in the midst of what has arguably been a political and judicial firestorm for Black and Brown people in America in recent years. “Sherrilyn has done an extraordinary job of articulating the specific threats and challenges to communities of color in voting, education, policing and in other settings,” explains Bryan Stevenson, famed civil rights attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. “However, she has also been a critically important voice in detailing the growing threats to democracy in this country. She has a brilliant mind and a unique ability to define issues in a way that brings clarity to important conversations that are needed.”

While it may be tempting to focus exclusively on her unique role within the racial justice ecosystem, that myopic lens arguably misses her full import as a uniquely gifted, influential leader. Speaking with her, her rare blend of confidence, strength, poise and selflessness is palpable. In that vein, late last year she announced her decision to transition what many racial justice advocates might consider the role of a lifetime to her Associate Director-Counsel Janai Nelson (marking the first woman to woman leadership transition in the institution’s 80+ year history) while she’s still very much at the top of her game. “I’m of the belief that transitions are part of leadership,” Ifill insists. “Part of my job and obligation is to make sure that the organization remains strong.” And in classic Sherrilyn Ifill fashion, she hands over an organization whose endowment fund has soared by $100 million during her tenure.

While veteran leaders can become distracted or even threatened by younger, newer energy, Ifill seems more invested in LDF’s sustainability and growth. Ifill explains, “One of the things I want to model for my colleagues who lead other organizations is how to get out of the way…is how to make way for fresh legs and new leadership to take the organization the next leg.” Reflecting on the many lessons that Ifill has imparted during their years working together, Nelson highlights, “the unrelenting tenacity to never be so challenged by the difficult times that we’re facing that we can’t find a pathway or see a throughline to get you to the other side….Sherrilyn is quite strategic about thinking of ways to turn even the most dire circumstances into a learning lesson, a teachable moment at the minimum, and often a leverage point for change and transformation.”

Considered among President Biden’s potential nominees to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Ifill hasn’t yet announced a new formal role, but she’s clear that the pursuit of racial justice is her life’s mission irrespective of her job title. Along with getting some much deserved rest and savoring additional time with family, Ifill has begun writing a new book which she says was inspired by her hero—the indominable voting rights activist—Fannie Lou Hamer and her infamous 1964 testimony at the Democratic National Convention where she detailed her barbaric treatment at the hands of local officials after trying to “register to become a first-class citizen” in Indianola, MS. Her brief testimony concluded with one powerfully revealing question, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”

Fueled by that same visceral desire for the realization of the fundamental American ideals of freedom and equality, Ifill challenges us to revisit what democracy is supposed to look like. “I think we are actually at a moment ironically of tremendous opportunity to make the kind of fundamental changes that I’ve really devoted my life to that will ensure that our democracy is healthy, and a healthy democracy is one that does adhere to principles of equality, that does adhere to principles of equal justice under law so that people can respect the rule of law,” she explains. “It is one that provides true opportunity, and it is one that creates an infrastructure of public goods that allows people to be able to move their lives forward and that compels us to interact with one another in ways that lifts our shared commonality.”

Drawing the throughline between racial justice work and democracy, Ifill explains, “Part of the reason why I want to write the book is to help people understand how deeply our ongoing engagement with and failure to reject the elements of white supremacy and systemic racism have so powerfully weakened our democracy. It’s not about whether it has just meant that Black people have been subjected to police violence or inadequate education or housing discrimination; our very democracy I think as we have been able to see over the past five years is weakened by our failure to address and confront the role that race plays in our society.” As an example, she references Russia’s purported 2016 election interference strategy largely centering around exploiting racial divisions—a known weakness for America.

Referencing the persistent injustices that have plagued Black and Brown communities, Ifill explains, “We’re seeing all these ways in which race and racism is the stalking horse for a fundamental trove of anti-democratic practices and policies that become palatable because they’re visited on minority communities. Our democracy cannot sustain this. We simply can’t survive as a healthy democracy unless we confront this and figure out how to turn a corner so that’s what I’m going to be writing about.”

Ifill insists that what is needed to address a centuries-long legacy of racial apartheid in a meaningful, inclusive and sustained way is nothing less than a refounding of our democracy. “I think many people hoped it would just happen after Brown or hoped it would just happen after the civil rights movement that people would just hit the reset button, but it turns out that race and racism is so deep in the foundations of this country that it’s going to take a great deal more.” She describes her forthcoming book as a blueprint for how to create “a renewed and refreshed vision of what it means to be a responsible citizen in this democracy and…the things that we simply can’t countenance if we have any hope of saving our Republic.”

While it may be tempting to view Ifill’s and LDF’s work as exclusively focused on the interests of Black and Brown people, their fight has indeed been a broader one seeking full equality for all. Many don’t realize that in July 2019 LDF joined other human rights organizations in an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to recognize that workplace anti-discrimination protections in Title VII apply to LGBTQ individuals, and in fact the June 2020 Supreme Court ruling that did just that relied in part on the historic 1971 LDF case, Phillips v. Martin Marietta, which ruled that “an employer may not, in the absence of business necessity, refuse to hire women with pre-school-age children while hiring men with such children.” Indeed, the breadth of her life’s work seems a testament to MLK’s famous admonition, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” To that end, Ifill urges everyone to resist the urge to avoid equity work because they’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and instead lean in full force. “I want to encourage people to believe that we must do this work and that in fact it is noble work,” she insists. “It is democracy work to be patriotic enough to grapple with the hardest things to face about your country and to think through how you’re going to make change….Wherever I’m seated, I’m going to do this work.”

Indeed, Ifill seems laser focused on that broader goal that benefits every American—not telling America what to be or forcing it to change its values but instead challenging and requiring it to live up to what it says it is.

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