Ifill strives to fill shoes of prominent predecessor at NAACP

Sep. 12, 2013 @ 09:22 PM

After being delayed for more than two hours by a Baltimore thunderstorm, Sherrilyn Ifill, the director-counsel and president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, walked into a NCCU law school classroom still filled with students and faculty.

Her first statement to the crowd: “I cannot believe you’re still here.”

Ifill, a national civil rights strategist, lawyer and author, spoke to the room full of NCCU law students Thursday evening.

Before she arrived, photos of Julius Chambers, the third director-counsel for the NAACP LDF and a former NCCU chancellor, rolled across the screen.

Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, to about 200 people waiting for Ifill, spoke of Chambers’ civil rights legacy.

“We must continue that work that we’ve been doing for the past 50 years,” said Saunders-White, quoting Chambers. “There is still a great deal of discrimination in this country and we all have to work to eradicate it.”

Phyllis Craig-Taylor, dean of the NCCU School of Law, said she met Chambers during a Legal Defense Fund conference in the mid-1980s. She was visiting from her small firm in Alabama, and he picked her out of the crowd to sit with him and discuss law over dinner.

“He wasn’t looking for the famous person with the name recognition,” Craig-Taylor said. “He was looking toward the future.”

Ifill is now the person “trying to fill those shoes” of Chambers. Before getting to NCCU, she tried to use a laptop to connect to the conversation in the classroom, using a webcam in the car to broadcast her speech. She commented she was impressed by their distance-learning technology.

She first worked at the Legal Defense Fund for five years while Chambers served as director-counsel. She decided to return as director-counsel herself because she said there’s more work to be done.

“I believe we’re at a critical moment in our country,” Ifill said. “It’s a democracy moment, not a civil rights moment.”

When Chambers told her that “we do our talking in the courtroom,” Ifill took a different approach by appearing on radio stations, writing her own opinion columns and forming an “engaged public life.”

Those against civil rights are willing to talk outside of the courtroom, she said, and therefore, they begin to change and lead the conversation.

“They were influencing how this country (thinks) about race,” she said. “We think we’ve won the story. We think everyone gets it.”

But she talked to future law students in the room about creating a legal “offense” to combat discrimination and fight for equality in the U.S., just like how legendary civil rights lawyers spent almost 20 years leading up to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education victory fighting to desegregate public schools. That was an offense game, Ifill said.

“The brilliance of these people is that they dreamed of an America that did not exist and believed they could make it happen,” she said.

She also told law students to anticipate the extreme moves that people will make in retaliation, such as Prince Edward County, Va., choosing to close its schools in 1959 instead of integrating them.

Ifill shared her views on the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin affirmative-action case that was sent from the Supreme Court back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals this summer, and how the NAACP LDF is trying to intervene in that case.

“Why would we want to intervene in a case?” Ifill asked the audience. “I hate to turn this into a law school class, but this is how I do it.”

LDF wants to get critical facts in the legal records. “The record, the facts that are there to support the argument, that’s critically important,” she said.

She also talked about Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act being struck down this summer. Now, states and counties can ask for certain types of voter ID at the polls, such as North Carolina’s recently passed law, as well as go through redistricting or close down polling places, Ifill said.

“The minute local level is where the majority of the game gets played,” she said.