Photo by Greg Endries.
If any organization can be said to have shaped and framed the modern discussion of civil rights in America, it is the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The best civil rights law firm in American history," as President Obama called it, has never been content to rest on its laurels, though, and Sherrilyn Ifill, named president of the LDF in 2012, has determinedly pushed the mission and dream of equal rights forward on every front.
In a year that has been marked by the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Ifill, a 1987 graduate of New York University School of Law, has made the most of opportunities to remind the country both of how far it has come and how far it has to go when it comes to providing for equality under the law, political and economic fairness and justice, and human rights. As she told the graduating class at her alma mater in May: “We are still relatively new at this thing called equality. We are still feeling our way. America is, in essence, an equality teenager. And you remember how you were when you were a teenager. Given to outbursts of frustration and anger. Questioning and not fully appreciating the values that shaped you. Engaging in magical and grandiose thinking – believing that you could be successful without hard work. And underneath it all insecurity and fear of the future. This is America when it comes to race and equality. We are immature, but most assuredly growing up.”
Lawdragon: You’re the seventh President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a firm that has played a pivotal role in civil and human rights law and litigation in the United States for 75 years. Do you ever sit at your desk and wonder, “What would Thurgood Marshall have done?” And what do you think he’d have to say about the NAACP LDF in 2014?
Sherrilyn Ifill: No pressure, right? Actually I do channel former Director-Counsels quite a bit. I find that each one in their own way was creative, bold and original. I push myself to be more courageous largely because of the example that each of them set. I think that Marshall would love the work we are doing and our powerful voice. I speak with Mrs. Marshall a fair amount (she sits on our board), and she keeps up with our work. I think we'd be in good shape if Justice Marshall were asked about us today.
LD: You’ve worked in civil rights, one way or the other, for much of your professional career. How do you measure progress? Is it disheartening to still be litigating over the Voting Rights Act? That there are still school desegregation cases being fought?
SI: It's disappointing to be sure. We all hoped that America would move faster towards racial equality. But anyone doing this work knows that progress is full of stops and starts. We measure progress not only by the creation of access and opportunity, but also by material changes in the lives of real people. I also think its important to see progress as changing people's expectations of what is possible.
LD: You recently gave the commencement address at your alma mater, NYU Law School. What’s your overall opinion on the state of legal education in this country?
SI: I have been very privileged to attend a law school that I thoroughly enjoyed, and to teach at a law school for 20 years, University of Maryland Law School, that has been at the forefront of innovation in clinical legal education and in teaching theory and practice. Some of the criticism of legal education is quite valid, but there are still extraordinary law schools providing extraordinary educational experiences for students. Both NYU Law School and Maryland Law School, for example, have been able to attract and retain exceptional classroom teachers, and offer clinical legal experiences that draw on the needs of the communities in which they are located.
LD: You’ve said your mentor was Derrick Bell, who was the first tenured African-American Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and taught at NYU Law. How did that relationship develop and what would you say were the most important things you learned from him?
SI: Derrick Bell was one of my mentors (I have been blessed with many mentors) and he principally encouraged me when I was writing my book. In fact it was Prof. Bell who insisted that I apply to MacDowell, the writing colony, to break through writing some critical chapters. I applied and was accepted and wrote for 8 hours a days, every day for a month. Best of all, he never allowed me to develop a sense of satisfaction – even about civil rights victories. And he saw the subtle and devastating ways in which victories were often infected early on with the seeds of future defeats. Brilliant, insightful and compassionate man. Plus he was just fun.
LD: How much does your role as president have to do with fund-raising? Does the NAACP LDF have enough to do to fulfill its broad mission? What would it do with more?
SI: Fundraising is a key part of my job and no, we do not have enough to fulfill our mission. LDF has become an institution and people just expect us to do what we do. But we need resources to support this work. Our attorneys work so hard, and carry such a heavy load and yet to pay just for their travel, for depositions, for expert witnesses is a struggle. Every lawyer in this country should be a supporter of LDF. That's how significant our role has been in shaping the rule of law and transforming the profession.
LD: Among your writings is a critically acclaimed book on the history of lynching in the U.S. Are there any other books on the horizon, or perhaps another topic you hope to find the time to tackle someday?
SI: When I agreed to take this job I was writing a book about race and Supreme Court confirmation hearings. There's a very particular story I want to tell about a little known case that I think so well reflects the story of race in America. Obviously I had to put the writing on hold, but I plan to return to writing that book someday. But not now.
LD: What would you tell a graduating law student today who wanted to do public service work but was $100,000 or more in debt for his or her education?
SI: That student was me! My advice: Follow your passion. As a lawyer, you will work incredibly hard anyway. For me, I have been privileged to do what I love, so I have always had an incredible sense of accomplishment and peace – even as my colleagues went on fabulous trips and bought new cars!