“People Were Making Bricks Out of Straw”
Radcliffe Medalist Sherrilyn Ifill on the challenges of racism and the potential for progress
“We have to see our own power.” That was the core message from civil rights lawyer and 2022 Radcliffe Medal recipient Sherrilyn Ifill during a Radcliffe Day discussion on Friday. Her remarks were intended to inspire, but also to warn: “One of the reasons that we're in the situation that we're in,” she said, referring to the current crisis in American democracy, “is that we have left so much power on the table.”
Ifill spoke during the afternoon ceremony at which her medal was awarded, which was attended by past recipients Linda Greenhouse ’68, Margaret Marshall, Ed.M. ’69, Ed ’77, L ’78, LL.D. ’21, and Donna Shalala—as well as by the Supreme Court’s new associate justice-designate, Ketanji Brown Jackson ’92, J.D. ’96. The president and director-counsel emerita of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF)—an organization she led from 2013 until earlier this spring—Ifill is a longtime civil rights activist and scholar. “Sherrilyn has dedicated her life and career to fighting for equal citizenship for all Americans,” said Radcliffe dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin in her introductory remarks. The youngest of 10 children, whose mother died when she was five, Ifill was bused from her predominantly black neighborhood in Jamaica, Queens, to a school in Flushing. Speaking later, Ifill emphasized how gains made during the civil rights movement had altered the path of her life. She recalled her oldest brother, who became an electrician, as their father had a generation earlier. But unlike her father, her brother was able to join the local union. And so, “it was he who signed the promissory note” for Ifill’s student loans “so that I could go to Vassar College,” she said. “Not my dad—it was my brother, who, because of his good union job, had good credit, and a nice house, and could sign that promissory note.”
After graduating from Vassar and New York University School of Law, she first joined LDF in 1988 as assistant counsel in the New York office. There, she litigated voting rights cases, including Houston Lawyers’ Association v. Attorney General of Texas, which reached the Supreme Court and extended protections from the Voting Rights Act to elections for judges.
In 1993, Ifill left LDF to join the law faculty at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, where for 20 years she taught civil procedure and constitutional law and established one of the nation’s first clinics challenging the legal barriers to formerly incarcerated people re-entering society. In 2007, she published On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century, which chronicled the enduring consequences of the nearly 5,000 lynchings that occurred in the United States between 1895 and 1960. In a video message to the audience, Bryan Stevenson, M.P.A. ’85, LL.D. ’15, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (and of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors lynching victims), called Ifill “a force of nature” and spoke of how On the Courthouse Lawn had “lifted the veil on the trauma connected to our history of racial injustice.” It was “a seminal book,” he said, “that forced so many to reckon with the fact that we are far from post-racial.”
Ifill is now working on a new book examining the effect of racism on American democracy and how to strengthen our democratic institutions.
The day’s main testimonial was delivered by MSNBC host and journalist Rachel Maddow, who praised Ifill “as a leader, as a fighter, as a litigator, as an organizer, as a builder of institutions, importantly, as a builder of black institutions.” Maddow noted a recent “unled, uncoordinated, legitimately spontaneous movement” advocating for Ifill’s nomination to the Supreme Court. “Maybe that will happen someday. Maybe it will not,” Maddow said. But “There aren’t many other people in the country who can lead us publicly, particularly on justice issues….We need a hand on the tiller from people like Sherrilyn Ifill as we roll into this next very dangerous patch of whitewater between now and the end of 2024.”
That dangerous patch of whitewater was the subject of Ifill’s conversation with 300th University Professor and former Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow. Their dialogue was both sobering and galvanizing. “So, clearly, we’re in trouble,” Minow said, as the two sat down together on the stage. “We’re in trouble as a country, we’re in trouble as a democracy.”
Ifill agreed. But in her answers to every question—about education, jobs, living wages, social breakdown, social responsibility, inequality, violence, the January 6 insurrection—she balanced a clear-eyed view of very hard realities with an open mind to better possibilities, and the urgent need to fight for it. At one point, Minow asked about “what happened” after the optimism and potential of the Brown v. Board of Education decision—“Where did we get off the track?” Ifill responded with a discussion about the destructiveness of entrenched racism. “It's impossible to talk about the unraveling of our democracy,” and how to save it, she said, “without talking about the embrace of white supremacy in this country.” Before Brown, “We had a public education system that white people were quite invested in.” Looking out at the mostly white audience in Radcliffe Yard, she said, “It helped many of your grandparents and great grandparents and parents, who were working class, who were immigrants, who did not own their own homes. And it was understood that that was a necessary public good for this country. It was only when the Supreme Court said that you would have to share that public good on an equal basis in 1954, that we began to have a crack in the in the fissure of consensus.” The election of Barack Obama to the presidency became another turning point, “which I think flipped the switch,” Ifill said, for the same sorts of Americans who opposed school integration. They began to think “that if we have to share power equally in this democracy, then maybe we don't have one.”
A similar backlash came after 2020, she said, when millions of Americans, of all ages and races, in all 50 states, came out to protest the killing of George Floyd. “I think we’ve forgotten how powerful a moment that was in this country,” she said. It was powerful enough to frighten those who want to maintain existing racial hierarchies. “They saw the power of our shared empathy....And they began to work immediately to try to shut off in our young people the valve of empathy. So there has been a concerted dismantling of the ‘we’” in this country. Voter suppression laws that have followed in many states, laws aimed at preventing students from learning racial histories and so-called critical race theory, the debunked investigations into election fraud—they are all, Ifill said, part of the same effort. (Harvard's recent report on its legacy of slavery, Minow pointed out, “cannot be taught in 36 states in this country right now.”) “All of this,” Ifill said, “is part of how we got here, and it’s why I have insisted on the need for us to confront and untangle this embrace of white supremacy. It will destroy not just black people or brown people, or Asian American people; it will not just mean there is rampant antisemitism, or that there’s violence again member of the LGBTQ community,” she said. “It will destroy this entire democracy.”
Giving up, she said, is not an option—morally or materially. She reminded the audience of the victories of the past two years: the Floyd protests were the largest civil rights demonstrations in the history of the country; the 2020 election saw the highest voter turnout since 1911 (when only white men were eligible to vote); and of the 5 million people who voted in Georgia that November, 97 percent returned to the polls two months later for the special election that sent Democrats Raphael Warnock, a black man, and Jon Ossoff, a Jewish man, to the Senate. “And if we forget our power, if we forget what we showed, then we will misdiagnose and not understand that what they are doing is they are responding to us. We created a world that they felt was getting away from them,” Ifill said. “It's important to recognize that.” And, she added, to keep going.
In the 1930s, she added, “There was no reason for Thurgood Marshall”—the civil rights attorney who litigated Brown and later became a Supreme Court Justice—“to believe that he could break the back of Jim Crow,” she said. “I mean, we had legal apartheid in half the country. It wasn’t even a democracy when he was doing this work.” Lynching at that time was at its height. “That’s what keeps me turned on, that knowledge that people were making bricks out of straw. And they’re the reason that you and I are sitting on this stage and that many of you are living in the neighborhoods where you live and married to who you’re married to.” She paused. “I know it looks bleak.…But if this is not the moment in which we all feel driven to imagine outside of ourselves what we can create and what we want, then there never will be one. And I just believe that will happen. I truly do.”