As the leader of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Sherrilyn Ifill is tasked with defending our most sacred freedoms. Amid renewed calls for racial justice, the legal powerhouse steps into the spotlight.
By Melissa Harris Perry
Photography by Rog & Bee Walker
Styled by Kat Thomas
“There were three newspapers every day. We might not have dinner, but we had the papers.”
Sherrilyn Ifill is smiling as she tells me about a childhood both difficult and enriching. Our conversation takes place over Zoom and spans three time zones, but when she looks up toward the ceiling, I know she is accessing the legendary, nearly photographic memory that has made her one of the preeminent civil rights lawyers of our time.
As president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Ifill is an unrelenting champion with a stellar reputation among civil rights leaders—but as with most superheroes, her name is probably one you don’t know.
A four-star general in the war to protect voting, she deploys legal foot soldiers across the country to ensure you can cast a ballot free from intimidation, misinformation, or unfair rules. She holds multibillion-dollar corporations accountable, demanding that they serve the interests of the Black and Latino communities that have made them rich. She pulls no punches targeting biased laws and leaders in national media. Her sense of justice does not waver; it is her inheritance.
The youngest of 10 children—eight girls and two boys—Ifill was a girl when her mother passed away. Older sisters willingly took on additional responsibility, showered her with love, and kept alive the warmth and memory of their departed mother. One of her big brothers, a rare unionized African American electrician, signed the promissory note for student loans so she could attend Vassar College.
It was her father who ensured the arrival of those three papers. A social worker in Harlem, Lester Ifill “was not at all warm and fuzzy,” according to his daughter, but “he was politically knowledgeable and brilliant and incredibly funny. The place where we met and shared joy was in our discussion about politics. That was our space.”
A childhood spent intellectually sparring with her father honed Ifill’s early skills and ambitions as a litigator. “I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer from the time I was very young,” Ifill explains. Her senior yearbook photo spells out her career goal: “Supreme Court Justice.”
I first met Ifill when we were both professors, teaching and researching in higher education while looking for opportunities to expand the reach of our classrooms. In 2012, I began hosting a national television show, and soon after, she was named to her current position with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (established as the Legal Defense Fund and known as the LDF). She was a frequent guest on my cable news show Melissa Harris-Perry—a proud member of what we called #Nerdland—and I looked to Ifill to help our audience understand complicated issues of law and race.
But in almost a decade of professional friendship, this interview was the first time she’d spoken to me about her childhood. The origins of Ifill’s work and mode of being now made sense to me: This scholar whose writing and speeches have paid tribute to the lives of little-known Black women is a girl who lost her mother. This organizational president who’s built a leadership team of exceptional Black women is a youngest daughter, reared by self-sacrificing sisters. This public figure who harnesses mass media to shape narratives of racial struggle is the beloved cousin of the late Gwen Ifill, the first Black woman to host a nationally televised political news program. (Sherrilyn describes Gwen as her North Star.) This precise thinker, riveting speaker, and fierce champion of civil rights is the daughter of a brilliant and exacting father.
And this trailblazer—in her role with the LDF—must know that her childhood dream of ascension to the nation’s highest court is not without precedent. She is the seventh person and the second woman to lead the storied civil rights legal organization, which Thurgood Marshall founded in 1940. Marshall, who argued the watershed Brown v. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court, later went on to become his nation’s first African American U.S. Supreme Court justice. Ifill could be the first Black woman to take her rightful seat on the bench.
The second time we speak, the court is on both of our minds; we’ve just learned of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ifill is devastated, calling Ginsburg “the closest thing to a Thurgood Marshall of women’s rights law” that we have. “She brought the reality of the discrimination faced by women and girls, with which she was intimately familiar, into her understanding of critical cases,” Ifill continues. “Her death reminds us of the fragility of our rights at this current moment.”
Protecting these rights now falls more than ever to women like Ifill, whose job it is to push the courts to live up to their promise. The task is exhausting and often thankless. But Ifill is undeterred. After assuming her position at the LDF, Ifill described her vision for the work in an interview with her alma mater, NYU Law School. “I want to play offense, and my focus is on those who are the most marginalized—at the intersections of race and class, and race and poverty,” she said.
Under the Trump administration, playing offense has not been simple; since the 2016 presidential election, Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate have rushed to tilt the courts in their favor.
But Ifill has picked her battles well. Under her leadership the LDF has defended voting rights, challenged racist policing practices, litigated for equitable education, and fought for fair housing, accessible transportation, and just environmental practices. It has also taken up the fight for fair elections, partnering with much newer organizations like Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization—a move that is emblematic of Ifill’s approach to her work. She has her aims, and she sees achieving them as a function of teamwork. The LDF litigates multiple cases at once, requiring its staff to work together to scrutinize all possible angles; examine arguments, counterarguments, and case law for each side; and execute each motion, filing, and deadline with scrupulous attention to detail. Every assertion and conclusion needs thorough research and robust discussion. The lives, opportunities, rights, and dignity of Black people hang in the balance. So too does the health of American democracy itself.
Ifill first came to the LDF as an assistant counsel in the area of voting rights in 1988. “I was completely green,” Ifill admits. “The senior attorneys in voting rights, Lani Guinier and Pamela Karlan, were departing to go into academia, but they continued to work with me on key LDF voting rights cases for two years in a supervisory and consultative role.”
My jaw drops when Ifill names Guinier and Karlan. For those unfamiliar with the field of civil rights law, being a young voting rights lawyer supervised by Lani Guinier and Pamela Karlan is like being an NBA rookie starting with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. “The standards were very high. I have never been as nervous and stressed as I was then,” Ifill says, “Lani Guinier shaped me with the incredible range of her thinking.”
The same, of course, could be said of Ifill herself. The “high standards” part in particular. The first case she developed and filed herself reached the Supreme Court. She is the kind of smart person who makes other smart people nervous, not because she is cruel but because she is so good at what she does.
“When I reach out to Sherrilyn, I don’t waste her time,” says Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change. Emails get reread. Facts are double-checked.
I ask Janai Nelson, who works with Ifill as the LDF’s associate director-counsel, whether she also takes care to give notes a once-over before hitting send: “She’s not harshly judgmental. She wouldn’t write someone off just for a single spelling error.” Then she laughs and amends herself: “But I wouldn’t make a practice of sending error-laden messages.”
Ifill might have felt unprepared at the beginning of her work at the LDF, but just three years in, she litigated and won the landmark voting rights case Houston Lawyers’ Association v. Attorney General of Texas. The decision ensured that Black and Hispanic voters have the same protections when voting for state trial court judges that they have when voting for other offices, extending protections found in the Voting Rights Act.
In 1993, Ifill left the Legal Defense Fund to join the faculty of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. “Litigating with the LDF means having incredible, powerful experiences, but also you don’t have a minute to process what is happening,” she says, explaining the move. For the next two decades, Ifill applied her demanding expectations to teaching civil procedure and constitutional law while initiating a series of innovative law clinics. In 2007 she authored On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century, an exquisitely researched text tracing the ruinous, multigenerational effects of lynching.
The former law professor is still very much a teacher. “We are in a profound crisis of democracy born of this country’s refusal, failure, and inability to grapple with racism and white supremacy,” she says. “The only way a thriving democracy survives is by embracing and investing in public goods like transportation, education, and health care. We have denigrated, and receded from, these services because we associate them with Black people.”
And that trend, Ifill would be the first to point out, didn’t just start after the last presidential election. “In 1959, Prince Edward County, Virginia, chose to close its public schools for five years rather than comply with the court’s ruling that they must integrate,” she says. “That is the symbol of the ways our country has been willing to sacrifice the fundamental pillars of democracy rather than confront and end racism.
“Racism is complex and relentless,” she continues, “but the LDF is also relentless, from the Groveland Four in the 1940s to securing Tennessee v. Garner in 1985. And we are still doing substantial police accountability work.” Without taking a breath, she also asks whether I know the book Devil in the Grove.
In a few minutes, Ifill weaves together narrative, history, theory, and law, while I scribble notes as fast as I can. For me, it is a syllabus in a sentence. The next week I read Devil in the Grove, learning how Thurgood Marshall and his team of lawyers represented young Black men sentenced to life in prison after being falsely accused of raping a young white woman in Lake County, Florida, in 1949. I review the Tennessee v. Garner decision to discover that this case established that police cannot use deadly force against fleeing suspects who do not constitute a threat. I study assiduously to become familiar with the last decade of LDF advocacy for overpoliced individuals and communities. Only after a week of research do I fully understand what Ifill has shared in a single exchange.
This is what it’s like to talk to Ifill: You leave with a reading list. She has a staggering capacity to connect the dots, complete the puzzle, and reveal what links the past to our present struggles for justice. It’s a rare skill. For Sherrilyn Ifill, it’s a superpower.
Her seemingly effortless intellect and unyielding advocacy have made Ifill a much sought-after ally among political and racial activists. From Silicon Valley CEOs to U.S. senators to Selma pastors—serious changemakers want Ifill on their side of the table.
“We can always count on Sherrilyn and the Legal Defense Fund to raise issues impacting Black communities, even in times and with people who want to be nonspecific,” says Color of Change’s Robinson. In recent years his organization has led an extended campaign to force accountability from Facebook for corporate practices that the LDF characterizes as perpetuating racial inequality and compromising electoral fairness. Robinson describes Ifill as an indispensable partner in this work. “I’ve seen her masterfully dissect Mark Zuckerberg and lay out the flaws in his understanding of voter suppression and civil rights. She comes to get results.”
“One of the most important lessons she models for our staff is the importance of seeing the through line,” says Nelson. “Sherrilyn emphasizes the connection between the LDF’s history and the multidimensional work we do today.”
Since 2013, Ifill has built on the LDF’s robust foundations, more than doubling the number of lawyers on staff and launching the Thurgood Marshall Institute to support a diverse cohort of researchers. In Ifill’s LDF you are as likely to bump into a young historian as an elder litigator.
Ifill’s expansive perspective and her commitment to seeing the through line, as Nelson puts it, from past to present has made her one of the rare institutional figures whose work feels relevant, not out of touch or high-minded. “It takes an entire ecosystem to make transformational change,” Ifill says, explaining to me the role of the NAACP LDF in the current movement for Black lives. “Charles Sherrod once described racism as a shapeshifter. As civil rights lawyers, our job is to be like the heroes in the old horror movies—able to see the werewolf no matter what form it has taken.”
Sometimes that means fighting in court. Sometimes that means working alongside celebrities like John Legend or politicians like Senator Cory Booker to raise awareness. Sometimes that means showing up as a guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert or as a talking head on Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show to explain why a rallying cry like “defund the police” isn’t a cause for alarm. “Part of my job is to extend the LDF’s credibility to ensure that ideas some describe as radical are not summarily dismissed,” she says.
In 2015, Ifill delivered the commencement address at New York University. She is always flawless, striking, and dignified, but on that day she was visibly emotional. Watching her, I can see the smart little Black girl from New York who had little money but plenty of love, and many books; who grew up to litigate, teach, write, lead, organize, strategize, fight, and win.
In the speech Ifill remarked on the calling of the present moment, telling the graduates, “We cannot pretend, even as we are here filled with the excitement of this day, that there are not deep challenges awaiting us.”
And then she went further, linking her sense of professional purpose with a harrowing personal experience. Just one week before delivering the commencement address, Ifill had been a passenger on an Amtrak train that crashed in Philadelphia. Eight people were killed. Following the accident she was walking along the tracks injured and dazed, and could only muster the strength to dial the numbers listed in her cell phone “favorites”—husband, daughters, sister, best friends. “During this time when I was utterly disoriented, my favorites came together.”
She closed her speech with an appeal, advising graduates not only to do their civic duty but also to do the work of community: “I call on you to passionately nurture, tend, and cherish your favorites—the ones who, when calamity happens, will find you and surround you with their love and lead you out of the fog.”
For so many Americans, 2020 has felt like a disorienting fog, but Ifill asks us to see this moment as a way out of the wreckage of white supremacy. “Multiracial protest is a demonstration of the vitality of and desire for public life and public engagement,” she says. “Even when the courts failed, the people have asserted their unrelenting determination to be full citizens. As much as it pains me to see long lines of people, wearing masks, standing on their feet for hours, risking their lives to cast a vote; these images are a snapshot of the nobility of Black people.”
Melissa Harris-Perry is the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University and founder and president of the Anna Julia Cooper Center.
Photographed by Rog & Bee Walker; styling by Kat Thomas; makeup by Adaisha Miriam; production by April Greer, location: Haven Street Ballroom.
Source publication: Glamour