Civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill to discuss her work with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Fear, particularly fear of the “other,” can divide society. Combatting that division through the court system is where Sherrilyn Ifill comes in.

At 9:15 a.m. Friday in the Hall of Philosophy, Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund1, will discuss “fear of the other and how that results in civil rights violations of our fellow citizens,” said Sherra Babcock.

Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said Ifill’s voice was an important one to hear from this week because of the work Ifill does with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund2. At the Legal and Educational Defense Fund, Ifill and her team look for ways to use litigation to fight for the civil rights of all Americans.

Ifill refers to the work the Legal Defense and Educational Fund does as “democracy maintenance work.”

“We check the foundation of this country, we find out when there are cracks and fissures, we look for answers and for solutions. We tell the truth about the state of our democracy,” Ifill said a keynote address at Columbia Law School’s annual Paul Robeson Conference in 2015. “We do (this) by looking at the conditions of those who are most marginalized — those who are pushed to the bottom and to the edges.”

Sherrilyn Ifill

In that keynote address, Ifill stated that “the state and soundness of our democracy is in peril,” and said she believes voting rights and police violence against unarmed African Americans are two major issues “symptomatic of a weakness that goes to the very foundation of our democracy.”

“At the core of the threat is racism — ongoing, toxic, unresolved racism,” Ifill said in her keynote. “But the means through which this poison is being so powerfully deployed is in the deliberate effort to inhibit African Americans from fully participating in the political process through voter suppression and the taking of innocent African American life by law enforcement officials.”

Ifill and her team at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund have recently filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging President Donald Trump’s Election Integrity Commission as being illegal and unconstitutional.

“Ours is the seventh suit against the commission, and the first to allege that it discriminates against voters of color,” Ifill wrote in an article for Salon this year. “Statements made by President Trump and his surrogates demonstrate the connection between race and the commission’s search for voter fraud.”

Along with believing that his Election Integrity Commission is illegal and unconstitutional, Ifill believes that Trump’s Department of Justice “has hardly been worthy of its name,” she wrote in an Aug. 2 New York Times op-ed.

In January 2017, Ifill told The Daily Good that the Legal Defense and Educational Fund is “faced with the prospect of losing (the Department of Justice’s) counsel, or even having it turned against us.”

“On top of all the civil rights cases we’re already involved in, it looks like we may have to become the private Department of Justice,” Ifill said in the interview.

In her Aug. 2 Times op-ed, Ifill stated that Trump’s Justice Department has “retreated from meaningful police reform, argued on behalf of state laws that suppress minority voting rights, directed prosecutors to seek harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, and extended the federal government’s power to seize the property of innocent Americans.”

“Each of these steps disproportionately and systematically burdens people of color, denying them their constitutional rights and widening the racial divides that this country has struggled for so long to close,” Ifill wrote.

In particular, Ifill is concerned about the Department of Justice’s reported plan to oppose “intentional race-based discrimination” in college admissions. She worries that this could be the beginning of an attack on affirmative action, which “would be a severe blow to racial justice.”

“Affirmative action has proved to be one of the most effective tools for expanding opportunity and promoting diversity,” Ifill wrote. “Although it has been relentlessly attacked over the past 40 years, affirmative action has undermined the racial exclusivity of our nation’s universities.”

Ifill said she believes undoing affirmative action would be a devastating outcome not only for Americans of color, but for the entire nation.

“College campuses are important engines of integration because they help break down racial barriers that cause distrust,” Ifill wrote in the Times. “Learning with and from people of different backgrounds allows students to understand a wide range of perspectives, a skill essential for democratic citizenship.”

In an article for CNN in May this year, Ifill was quoted saying that “when President Trump asked black Americans what we have to lose by electing him, the answer is all the gains we’ve made in advancing justice and fairness.”

  1. Aug. 11: This article has been updated to reflect NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is a separate organization from NAACP.
  2. Aug. 11: This article has been updated to reflect the full name of the organization.
Tags : Hall of PhilosophyLegal Defense and Educational FundNAACPSherrilyn Ifill
Meaghan Wilby

The author Meaghan Wilby

Meaghan Wilby covers the Lincoln Series in Applied Ethics as well as special lectures and programs, and works with the Chautauqua Foundation to cover development activities. Originally from New Zealand, she recently graduated from Allegheny College with a B.A. in English. She played four years of varsity basketball at Allegheny and was an editor for The Campus newspaper for two years. She can be reached at