First of a two-part series
Over the next few weeks, The Washington Informer will share comments from Black political leaders, grassroots champions for Black equality and those who bring insiders’ perspectives about the goings-on in the Trump administration.
Here we include the thoughts of Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) – the nation’s premier civil rights law organization fighting for racial justice and equality.
LDF, founded in 1940 by the legendary civil rights lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, became a separate organization from the NAACP in 1957. The lawyers at LDF developed and executed the legal strategy that led to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, widely regarded as the most transformative and monumental legal decision of the 20th century.
Ifill serves as the second woman to lead the organization. She 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 where she taught civil procedure and constitutional law to thousands of law students for over 20 years. She also 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.
And her 2007 book “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” has been credited with laying the foundation for contemporary conversations about lynching and reconciliation. A 10th anniversary edition of the book has recently been released with a foreword by Bryan Stevenson, the acclaimed lawyer and founder of the national lynching memorial in Montgomery who most recently received national notice following his work as detailed in the film and book, ”Just Mercy.”
In 2013, Ifill would be invited back to the Legal Defense Fund – this time to lead the organization as its 7th Director-Counsel. In that role, Ifill has increased the visibility and engagement of the organization in cutting edge and urgent civil rights issues, while maintaining the organization’s decades-long leadership fighting voter suppression, inequity in education and racial discrimination in application of the death penalty.
Ifill responded to a few questions posed earlier last month.
Washington Informer: What are your feelings after having received a Humanitarian Award from your peers here in the District? How does this award speak to the work you continue to do?
Ifill: Honestly I could not have been more honored to receive this award. It was beyond exciting to look out from the stage at a packed Kennedy Center audience and receive this acknowledgement for doing the work that means so much to me. It is tremendously fulfilling to be a civil rights lawyer, but there are also moments of discouragement and fatigue. It means so much to feel as though your work is seen and recognized, and it’s deeply touching to receive this support.
WI: ASALAH recently held its annual event with the theme focusing on the vote. What is the role that everyday people can play in securing the vote for all Americans, especially Blacks?
Ifill: Check to make sure that you are registered 30 days before the election. Make sure everyone in your family is registered. Bring up registration and voting when you meet with your friends, when you’re at the office, in the beauty salon and barbershop, and when you’re at your place of worship. Take advantage of early voting so you can help others get to the polls on Election Day. Vote in every election – not just every four years – and vote for every office on the ballot, from president to sheriff.
WI: Voter suppression continues to be one of the most significant problems and challenges in the U.S. Why do we continue to face this hurdle given the rhetoric of the country and the laws of the land? And with many Americans, especially millennials, seemly apathetic about voting, what steps should be taken to increase voter participation?
Ifill: Voter suppression targeted at African American and Latino voters is a form of white supremacy. It is one of the most dangerous challenges to our democracy because it reflects the desire of some to hold onto power completely and indefinitely. Democracy is premised on power-sharing, and the opportunity to not only cast a vote, but to have a meaningful opportunity to have your voice heard in the political process.
All voters – millennial and otherwise – get excited about voting when there are candidates with ideas that excite them. But we must also remove barriers that make it harder to vote. Election Day should be a national holiday, or we should have weekend voting. Early voting has been a terrific innovation. We need automatic voter registration. Every high school student who is 18 years old when they graduate should receive a diploma and a voter registration card when they walk across the stage. Those who are not yet 18 should be pre-registered and automatically added to the rolls when they turn 18.
We must end voter suppression practices that purge voters from the rolls, move polling places without notice, require unnecessary government-issued photo identification to vote. And end racial and partisan gerrymander of legislative districts, that cancel out the voting power of particular groups.
Most of all, we should treat voting as right, not a privilege for those who manage to navigate the maze of barriers we erect.