Sherrilyn Ifill, the new head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational… (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
The presence of Thurgood Marshall is almost palpable as Sherrilyn Ifill surveys the stately wood paneling, the brown leather chairs in this classroom at the University of Maryland law school. Ifill has been a law professor at the Baltimore campus for 20 years — an achievement made possible by the late Supreme Court justice’s work.
As a young lawyer, Marshall, who lived just blocks away, sued the law school for denying entry to students of color. He prevailed, paving the way for generations of African American lawyers such as Ifill.
On Tuesday, soon after the first black president was sworn in for a second time on the holiday set aside for remembrance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ifill walked further along the path paved by Marshall, taking the reins of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Marshall founded and led LDF to landmark court victories against school segregation and other forms of racial discrimination.
“It might be a kind of spiritual circle to my being the director counsel. In many ways, I couldn’t be here but for Thurgood Marshall,” Ifill said with a smile. “It feels right. It feels like an honor.”
It won’t be easy. Ifill is set to become the top lawyer at LDF at a time when two of the pillars of civil rights heritage — affirmative action in higher education and a key provision of the Voting Rights Act — are in danger of being toppled. The Supreme Court, on which Marshall sat for nearly 21/2 decades, is weighing whether these laws are still needed — a few years after the court upheld their constitutionality.
“Of course, that is always somewhat alarming,” Ifill said.
But challenges are nothing new for Ifill. She has spent years documenting lynchings on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and successfully beating back efforts to install a landfill behind a historic black church in Harford County. And the 50-year-old Baltimore County resident has known the queries and sometimes-quizzical looks that come from being one half of an interracial couple for the past 25 years. A mother of three daughters and former director of the children’s choir at her church, Ifill is only the second woman to lead LDF.
“She has a toughness about her that I think will serve her very well,” said Ted Shaw, a former leader of LDF. “I mean the right kind of toughness.”
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“Be aware of that myth, that everything is going to be all right. Don’t give in.” — Thurgood Marshall, 1978
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Ifill was raised in Queens by churchgoing African Methodist Episcopal parents who emigrated from Panama. As the youngest of 10 siblings, she was 16 before she got the chicken leg at the dinner table. As the littlest Ifill, she did not get the choice meat.
“I got the wing or a piece of a wing and lots of rice and peas,” Ifill recalled.
She was just shy of 6 when her mother, Myrtle, died of cancer.
“She has a little bit of a mandate in terms of, ‘You only have a certain amount of time and what are you going to do with that?’ ” said Ifill’s sister Darlene Ifill-Taylor, a psychiatrist with a private practice in Prince George’s County. The loss of their mother may also help to explain why Ifill finds Pastor Shirley Caesar’s “You Can Make It” the “most complete vocal spiritual three minutes ever recorded.” (“You can make it when mother is gone / Sometime you may feel like you’re all alone / You don’t have nobody to depend on / Always remember God is still on the throne.”)
Their father, Lester, who had a high school education, worked as an electrician but eventually got a job working with young people for a community development agency in Harlem.
The Sunday-morning political talk shows were required viewing in the household, as were the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Ifill would find in the political arena two black women who would become role models: Barbara Jordan, the congresswoman from Texas who was a force in the Watergate hearings, and Shirley Chisholm, a congresswoman from New York who was the first African American to run for president. (Ifill’s not the only political junkie in the family: Cousin Gwen Ifill is moderator of PBS’s “Washington Week.”)
Ifill attended public schools in New York and went to Vassar College. Her first job out of New York University School of Law was as an assistant counsel at LDF, where she litigated voting rights cases. At the time, she was a young mother and all of her cases took her to the South. Those years are filled with memories of nursing her daughter while writing briefs for a Texas case in which the Supreme Court strengthened the Voting Rights Act.