Sherrilyn Ifill has served as president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund since January, and she says that while “the signs are all around me that I’m new”—including bare walls in her offices in New York and Washington—she feels “quite settled in.” This may be partly due to her familiarity with the organization: Ifill worked as an assistant counsel at LDF early in her career. Now a veteran of civil-rights litigation, she has taught since 1993 at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, from which she is currently on leave. Citing the importance of fully committing to her post and “giving the organization what it needs,” Ifill plans to abstain from litigation for two years. She then hopes to return to the courts.
During her first stint at LDF, Ifill was involved in the case of Houston Lawyers Association v. Attorney General of Texas, in which the Supreme Court held that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act applies to judicial elections. At the University of Maryland, she established a clinical practice with her students, representing low-income and minority clients in the Baltimore area. Ifill says the experience “really opened me up to a kind of full-service civil-rights practice.” While the cases rarely brought her to federal court, she says the work was instructive and rewarding.
LDF is involved in a number of high-profile legal battles, including Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Ifill maintains that “the record was about as solid as it could be” with respect to the standard for preclearance of local election laws, but she says, “for people who were at the oral arguments, the writing on the wall was clear.” The fallout from the ruling has been swift. Texas reinstated a voter-identification law that LDF had succeeding in blocking through litigation in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder. “Part of our job,” Ifill explains, “is to ask or compel governments—state or federal—to protect the civil rights of their residents.”
In addition to voting rights, Ifill says, “there’s an array of economic issues that are crying out for a civil-rights frame. They’re really issues around practices that disproportionately affect minorities.” She ticks off a list of what she terms “practices that are blocking people from being able to move into the middle class.” These include student-loan debt, debt collection, foreclosures, and retroactive criminal-background checks. Even as she leads an organization historically associated with African-Americans, Ifill emphasizes the importance of broadening public interest in questions of civil rights. “We’re really in a critical moment in this country,” she says, and “we are poised to understand the connection between civil rights and democracy. Civil rights is really a democracy movement.” During her research for a book on the last recorded lynchings in Maryland, she says she discovered, “There is a real hunger for, but a real fear of, conversations about race.”
Ifill, 50, was raised in New York City, the youngest of 10 children. She credits her father, an electrician who later became a social worker, with exposing her and her siblings to issues of social justice. She recalls watching journalist Gil Noble’s Like It Is program, and tuning in to both parties’ national conventions beginning in 1972. Then-Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Texas, was “a huge inspiration” during the Watergate proceedings, Ifill says. She counts herself fortunate to hold a position that is consistent with her “lifelong dream.”
Ifill splits her time between New York and Baltimore. She is married with three children. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College in 1984 and a law degree from New York University in 1987. A lover of art and theater—“things that feed the spirit”—she says she is happiest when reading and writing. Ifill is currently at work on a book on Supreme Court confirmation hearings since Brown v. Board of Education.
This article appears in the September 18, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Fighting for the Dream.