ABOVE PHOTO: Sherrilyn Ifill, the new director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
By Hazel Trice Edney
America’s continuous struggle with economic woes that have disparately impacted African-Americans and other people of color must signal to the civil rights community a need to not only expand its focus – but change its strategy.
This according to Sherrilyn Ifill, the new director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who received rousing applause during a welcoming reception late last month.
“And so we have to figure out how we’re going to deal with this issue of the new economy. Where do we fall in that? Where do the people that we represent fall in the new credit realm, in the new mortgage lending realm? How are we going to deal with the loss of African-American wealth by the foreclosure crisis that has really decimated the Black middle class?” Ifill grilled an audience of hundreds of lawyers, civil rights activists and leaders of non-profits. “So, we’ve got to step out and begin to take on those issues for our future and that’s my desire as I take up this position at the Legal Defense Fund.”
Ifill started at the New York office of the LDF in 1988 as a voting rights lawyer before leaving to teach at the University of Maryland School of Law five years later. After more than 20 years of teaching, legal consulting and continuing to litigate, the veteran lawyer has returned to her first love.
As her civil rights colleagues listened intently during the Downtown D.C. reception, she reminded them of the “Educational Fund” part of the LDF, which too often gets lost in the name. That is one part that strategically must now become a priority, she said.
“Part of our charge is to engage in a conversation with the American public about what’s really happening to African-Americans. We love that they’re able to see a president and his wife get off Marine One with their kids. Without question, that’s a tremendous success, due in some part to LDF. But there is another America – another African-America,” she stressed. “And our job is to make sure that the picture of that African-America stays at the forefront of the vision of people in this country. And we only do that by committing to show them that African-America and that Latino America and that Asian America and that elderly America and that poor America and all of the people who are living under the margin and behind the veil of American success and prosperity.”
Reaction to her 20-minute talk ranged from energetic applause to hearty chuckles. Perhaps the most humorous line was her use of the Super Bowl to make her point about the need for a greater offense.
“I’m from Baltimore, home of the Super Bowl champions and we’re known for our defense … I had to get that in,” she said to laughter from the audience. “But the lessons of the Ravens is that although we’re known for a great defense we did recognize that we had to lift our offense…We recognized that we had to have a quarter back who could throw, that we had to have people who could block, that we needed a runner that we needed what we call depth on our offense…And I’ve come back to the Legal Defense Fund in pursuit of depth on our offense.”
Though she encouraged her colleagues to “defend the wins” that have been made, such as the then pending arguments in the Shelby vs. Holder voting rights case, she stressed that there must now come a shift in the strategy.
“I’m not interested in just defending what we have already been able to establish. I’m really interested in our pushing ourselves forward to try and realize an America that does not yet exist,” she said, continuing the football analogy. “It’s the perfect time for me because I feel so powerfully and so passionately about the issue of voting rights; because I believe that we really have to be on the offense on this issue…We have to continue to advance the ball.”
The wins have been many, she pointed out. As the seventh in a line of NAACP-LDF director-counsels, she praised the work of her predecessors. In the audience were former director-counsels Ted Shaw and Elaine Jones. Ifill succeeds John Payton who died suddenly last year. Preceding them were founder Thurgood Marshall in 1940, Jack Greenberg and Julius Chambers consecutively.
“They created this world in which we have statutes that theoretically protect us from employment discrimination and protect us in the voting realm and protect us from educational segregation and so forth. And we have to defend those winds and the Supreme Court now has put us in the position where we are pretty regularly defending them. Even after they’ve been upheld, we’re back defending them again. But we cannot allow ourselves to only play a defense game,” she said.
She named a string of economics-related issues plaguing Black America that must be studied and must be documented in order to educate America. Those issues include the school to prison pipeline, the impact of the “new economy” on people of color, the housing crisis and safe quality education.
Though she described herself as energetic, she stressed the need for the civil rights community to pull together as a united front because no one person can do it alone.
“The job is enormous, the work is huge and I am mortal,” she said. “It only happens when we are linked together and when we’re working in partnership. All of the gains of the civil rights legal community have been rendered by us standing close together, communicating with each other, determining what we want and going for it with tenacity. And that’s why I’m happy to see so many of you here tonight because it’s an expression of your commitment to continue doing that.”