Sherillyn Ifill has known she wanted to be a civil rights attorney since she was a young girl.
Over three decades, Ifill worked her way up from a fellow at the ACLU to the President and Direct-Counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Ifill spent three decades working on voting rights, environmental justice and former inmates’ transitions back into society. Outside of the courtroom, Ifill spent 20 years teaching civil procedure and constitutional law at the University of Maryland School of Law. Last year, she was named one of Time magazine’s women of the year.
The 47th Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Keynote Speaker sat down with The Spectrum Thursday before her appearance as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series to discuss Supreme Court precedents, the importance of diversity and pushing through traumatic experiences as a community:
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Spectrum: What case were you a part of that stands out the most for you?
Sherrilyn Ifill: “They all stand out in their own way. I think 2020 was a year of incredibly high-profile and consequential cases. We sued the post office to compel them to deliver ballots on time, we sued Trump [and] Bill Barr. We were involved in some really high-profile litigation, but every case feels that way. We’ve done cases involving natural hair discrimination, death penalty cases, employment, discrimination, education, and they all feel consequential in their own way. So, no, I can’t say one. I can only say that each one has its own kind of consequences. But of course 2020 really stands out because it was such a high-pressure time.”
TS: The ABA [American Bar Association] reported in 2020 that only 5% of all lawyers are African American. What advice would you give to Black and Brown students who are interested in going into this field, but are facing anxiety because of the lack of diversity?
SI: “It’s a long and old story. Sadly, it’s not very much different than when I went to law school. You have to know why you want to do this thing; I would say this to students of any race or gender. I taught law school for 20 years, and I would say to my students, ‘If you don’t want to be here, you shouldn’t be here.’ It’s hard work. And you’re going to work incredibly hard if you want to be at the top of the profession, if you want to be really good at what you do. So, you have to know why you want to do it. I know some people just go to law school because your parents stop bothering you and you have something to do. I can understand how that can happen. I don’t advise it though. I think you should know at that point, what you think you want to do with this thing. You can change it at any time. But you’re gonna need that motivation to move you through and to move you through even a sense of isolation. But pick your law schools carefully. Be in a place that values diversity and that demonstrates that by what they do, and not just what they say. And that’s all you can try to do, is put yourself in as comfortable a situation as you can. But law school is what it is. It is a professional school that gives you the skills and enables you, then prepares you to take a very, very important leadership role in a democracy. And if you’re not clear about why you’re doing that, then it’s going to be very difficult to succeed. You’re just going to do what scorers have done before you, which is, you’re going to make your way through it. Which is what all of us have had to do. I don’t think lack of diversity is a reason not to go to law school. It’s a reason to go to law school, because we do need to diversify this profession. I think we have to do what we’ve always done, which is just press forward and within it find your way. My law school roommates became my best friends, my best friends to this day. Godmother to my children. You will find your group who you connect with. So I think you should count on that everywhere you go, you’re going to find that connection.”
TS: The idea has been floating around of the Supreme Court getting rid of affirmative action. What do you think will be the impact if they go forth and make that decision?
SI: “Well, I think it’s going to have a devastating impact. I think we have become accustomed to affirmative action, certainly in college admissions, but in other ways as well, such that we don’t even recognize that it exists actually. And I think that, should the Supreme Court drag down race conscious admissions for universities, we’re going to feel it, and we’re going to see a drastic difference. We’ve seen it in California, and we’re going to see it all over. And that’s going to change the educational experience for all students. It’s going to change the experience for professors in terms of who’s in the room and what perspectives come to the table. And of course, worse and most consequently, ultimately it will change the profession [of professors]. So I think it’s quite serious. And, you know, I think it will garner a lot of attention this term, we will see what the court does. I will admit that things look grim, but [no] one ever knows.”
TS: U.S. Rep. Barry Moore and five other House representatives recently co-sponsored a bill to abolish the Department of Education. And not too long ago, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blocked AP African American Studies from being taught in Florida high schools. What do you take away from these political moves?
SI: “Education has always been at the center of the fight over racial equality in this country. Obviously, we know that from Brown v. Board of Education. So it doesn’t surprise me. In fact, it’s actually quite familiar in a way and really takes us back to the wars around education following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown. All the same language is being used: the language of parental choice, the language of children being indoctrinated, the idea that somehow children are being placed in danger by being exposed to the truth and by being exposed to people who are not like them. Those are the same things that were said to resist integration. So it actually feels quite familiar. I don’t mean that in a good way. I mean that in an incredibly alarming way. It was 101 members of Congress who signed the Southern Manifesto agreeing that they would resist Brown in any way they could. So that now some congresspeople want to do the same essentially with education doesn’t surprise me. The term ‘massive resistance’ was created by the governor of Virginia after Brown. So this has always been part of the play. Unfortunately, the last eight or so years have really returned us to periods that we have seen before, whether it’s the post-Reconstruction period or the post-Brown period. I think it’s quite alarming and needs to be resisted as much as possible.”
TS: Less than a year ago, a white supremacist terrorized a local [Tops] grocery store, killing 10. They were sentenced to life without parole yesterday. From your experience, what is the best way to move forward as a community after such a tragedy?
SI: “I don’t have the answer to that. I’m not a faith leader or someone who feels equipped to address the incredibly powerful trauma that I think is experienced in that community. But, I also think that we are in a period of national trauma that needs to be addressed by those best equipped to do it. So rather than suggest that there are these pockets of trauma, I think we should understand that we’re really in a national period of trauma that has been undiagnosed, and that is not being really addressed. We’ve lost a million people to COVID-19 and we just keep it moving. The rise of white supremacist violence over the last eight years is incredibly painful and recalls really devastating memories for Black people. It’s been very painful for me. I’ve been a civil rights lawyer for 30 years. It’s incredibly difficult. To answer your question with the expertise I have, which is as a civil rights activist and a civil rights lawyer, is that you keep fighting no matter what. We don’t have an option to lay down our weapons yet, and you have to keep fighting for the world that you want to see. So we should take care of ourselves, for sure. I think that’s important. I think it’s something that’s been very much a new addition to this discussion about what we do by younger generations who have been much more focused on self-care and trauma than we ever were. We just kind of kept it moving through everything, including the generations before me, who really went through some of the most traumatic experiences. We all look at the civil rights movement like it was this wonderful, noble thing when it was actually a time of deep trauma. We were not socialized to believe that self-care was something we needed to spend time on. So, I’m actually happy that that’s now a part of the movement. That taking care of yourselves and recognizing that we need to care for ourselves is actually part of the work of civil rights, revolution and transforming the world. So I think we have to do that. But then you have to keep fighting. It is ultimately a war of attrition, and whoever gives up first wins, so we just have to keep fighting.”
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