Noted civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill calls on lawyers to help

The work of addressing America’s injustice and inequality is dependent on the courage of ordinary people, as Sherrilyn Ifill told the gathered crowd during her visit to Tulane, emphasizing the need to preserve civil rights and democracy, which renowned for.

In her call to action, former President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and long-time civil rights attorney Ifill warned that the American democracy is currently facing significant threats and its defense depends on the willingness of lawyers to step up and abide by the rule of law.

“If our profession collapses,” Ifill told the crowd of mostly lawyers and academics, “we’re done. There is a lot resting on our shoulders. If we want to save American democracy, we must ensure there is equality, justice, and opportunity for all.”

More than 300 Black alumni of Tulane Law School returned to campus for a three-day reunion. The keynote speaker at the Black Alumni Law Reunion at Tulane Law School was Ifill. Many of the trailblazers in the legal profession from the 70s and early 80s were among the Black alumni of the school.

In an informal conversation with Francis Tim, a lawyer and alumnus (L’84), she also sat with Tim Ifill, where they discussed how her early career shaped her understanding of the current legal and political landscape and the potential future of civil rights. In her remarks, she spoke about the state of the Civil Rights Movement and the importance of social justice.

She argued that the current retrenchment of people of color’s rights stems from fears of eroding political privilege and clout caused by shifting demographic trends toward a more racially and ethnically diverse electorate. She also suggested that the normalization of white supremacy is part of the agenda in some halls of power. She warned that recent efforts to roll back voting rights and broader inclusion for historically marginalized groups are threatening American democracy. Ifill was characteristically candid.

According to Ifill, “Each and every one of us must make the commitment to put in the effort. This entails going beyond simply casting our votes every four years. We need to actively participate in local elections, strive to elect – or even consider running ourselves – competent individuals for school boards, reaching out to our Senators, and offering our assistance as poll workers. It will require the collective effort of all of us.” We have a responsibility to select more capable leaders and drive change on our own. Merely voting and assuming our work is complete is insufficient.

Ifill cited the 2020 election in Georgia, where Senator Black, including the state’s first Democratic senators, mentioned the goal of weakening the future political influence and turnout of Brown and Black Georgians. She stated that this was achieved by passing laws that made it illegal to provide water to those standing in long lines and by limiting the number of polling places on election day.

Ifill remarked, in reference to the momentous voter participation of African Americans in the previous electoral period, “All subsequent events have been a reaction to our display of influence.”

She noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has been plagued by scandals concerning ethics. She also reminded the audience in Florida of the efforts elsewhere to prevent teaching Black history in a way that might make white students feel uncomfortable. She pointed out during the recent oral arguments in a high court case that ending race-conscious admissions in colleges could undermine access to higher education for minorities.

“I experienced embarrassment, I experienced remorse, and I felt personally uneasy,” she expressed while reading The Diary of Anne Frank. “I had compassion, but I did not contribute to this suffering and I was not a Nazi. However, there are certain Americans who had to detach themselves when they learned about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement, and they observe that sense of compassion in their children.”

“If we think progress is inevitable,” Ifill warned, “we’d better wake up.”

The execution and development of the legal strategy brought by the Education Board v Brown on the Supreme Court’s decision was a seminal moment for the LDF. Founded by the legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshal, the LDF is led by the second woman ever to hold the title of Emeritus Director-Counsel and President. Since joining the Ford Foundation as a Senior Fellow, Ifill has continued her scholarship and work in civil and voting rights, leaving the NAACP.

She began her career as a Fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) 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 the LDF to join the faculty at the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore, where she taught constitutional and civil procedure law to thousands of law students and pioneered a series of law clinics, including one focused on the challenging legal barriers to reentry for ex-offenders.

Ifill is a prolific scholar who has also published commentaries and op-eds in leading newspapers, as well as academic articles in top law journals. She is credited with laying the foundation for contemporary conversations about reconciliation and confronting the highly acclaimed legacy of lynching in the 21st century, particularly in her 2007 book “On the Courthouse Lawn”.