Tisch College hosts renowned civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life closed its 2022 Solomont Speaker Series on November 9 with a presentation by Sherrilyn Ifill, a distinguished civil rights attorney. Ifill gave an overview of the state of American democracy and discussed the urgent need to fight for it.

Ifill is the former President and Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she handled various civil rights issues, including voter suppression and racial discrimination. She taught at the University of Maryland School of Law for 20 years and established a series of law clinics that not only served law students but also facilitated the reintegration of ex-offenders. In 2021, she was appointed to President Biden’s commission on the Supreme Court.

Ifill started by sharing her impressions of working at Tisch College and found that it overlapped well with her professional work.

“It is very difficult for me to turn down an opportunity to speak on a subject that is so important to me and is truly my life’s work,” said Ifill. “That’s basically the name of my talk – ‘the fight for democracy’. So I was thrilled to hear that you are all addressing and addressing the issues that I believe we are not only facing but are, and are, struggling with in this country at this moment.”

Ifill described America as a “youth democracy,” citing the nation’s history and the characteristics that kept it from being truly democratic until recently. In particular, Ifill discussed the fact that many African Americans and other racial minorities were barred from voting until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, thereby excluding a significant portion of the American population from its representative government.

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“If you have teenagers or were a teenager, you know what it’s like,” Ifill said. “I think we’re having growing pains … I think we’ve just started trying to be who we said we were, but who we really weren’t before 1965.”

Ifill went on to discuss some contemporary social dilemmas that reflect the inadequacy of the nation’s democracy.

“You know your democracy is in trouble because thousands of people are storming your capital and threatening to hang the vice president,” Ifill said, referring to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. “Is it in trouble if your country’s leader doesn’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power?”

She also criticized certain contemporary attempts to improve democracy, noting that advocates of a democratic nation should speak to those with whom current political precedent fails.

“You have to engage with people who interact with democracy in a way that exposes the foundation’s weaknesses,” she said. “So if I want to know if democracy is healthy, I’m not talking to the most successful. I’m not talking to the pundit on TV that America worked for.”

Ifill noted that despite their pro-democracy work, activists are often vilified and seen as people with personal missions.

“If we were seen as democracy workers, and not as [people of] For special interests working on their own agenda, from the perspective of the communities we represent, the information we have would help people understand how our democracy is deeply flawed,” she said.

ifill’s book,On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” suggests a basis for conversations about reconciliation and healing from racial trauma. Her upcoming book, Is This America?, is inspired by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, a former Mississippi tenant who was a key figure in the suffrage movement.

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“She was allowed to speak [at the 1964 Democratic Convention]’ Ifill said. “And she spoke incredibly powerfully … the rhetorical phrase she used was, ‘Is this America? I question America.’”

Tisch College Dean Dayna Cunningham then sat down with Ifill to ask a few more questions about the state of modern democracy. Cunningham asked a question about Ifill’s identity as a black woman and how it has played a role in her work.

“That sensitivity of both recognizing that we are a youthful democracy and being excited by the possibilities is another piece of black sensitivity that is black joy and black hope,” she asked. “How did that affect your path professionally and in your work?”

In response to Dean Cunningham’s question, Ifill discussed an essay she recently wrote that discussed the impact that previous black leaders had on her personal experience.

“They worked day and night on this thing, wrecking their health, traveling and often risking their lives,” Ifill said. “These were black people risking everything for something they couldn’t even see and had no guarantee would work. And that is so powerful for me.”

I then heard questions from the audience.

A viewer asked Ifill: “[Regarding] The narrative of just sitting around and talking about what’s happening – how can we change that to start implementing actionable plans?

In response, Ifill explained the importance of voting and informed voting in a democracy, also pointing out that Americans need to engage directly with both their elected officials and the community around them.

At the end of the discussion, Ifill emphasized how urgent the fight for democracy had become and how important it was for everyone to participate.

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“I hope we feel that urgency and I hope we have the courage of the people who came before us and made our lives possible,” she said.