Meet the Nation's Next Civil Rights Leader

Sherrilyn Ifill, the new president of the NAACP LDF, shares her vision of justice.

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 In fact, the work fighting against voter-suppression efforts should not end simply because the 2012 election is over. We need to look at what happened in this election and determine what steps must be taken to ensure that voting is not an all-day job -- it shouldn't take eight hours. It should be accessible and easy for all eligible voters. We saw on Election Day the determination of black voters to vote, in so many communities -- whatever the barriers. So we can't turn back from protecting the right to vote.

We should remember that although courts would not allow voter-ID laws to go into effect for this year's election, they will go into effect for elections in the future. This is true in both South Carolina and Pennsylvania. We're not prepared to take jurisdictions at their word; nor are we prepared to turn away from this issue just because the 2012 election is over. We will have to ensure that voter identification is readily available for minority voters in those jurisdictions that require them, and that efforts to misinform and discourage voting are rooted out.

We want to spend some time addressing the effects of the economic crisis on the African-American community. That includes the foreclosure crisis, which has had devastating effects on families, neighborhoods and educational systems in African-American communities. Sadly, employment discrimination remains an ongoing problem.

TR: You've spoken about advancing an "innovative 21-century civil rights practice" in your new role at LDF. What does that look like, and how is it different from the civil rights advocacy of the past?

SI: LDF changed America. Brown v. Board of Education is arguably the most important Supreme Court decision of the 20th century. It opened the door to equality in America, and we've been fighting to keep that door open ever since. Many African Americans have been able to make it through the open door. But too many have been left behind, and the opening of the door is getting narrower and narrower.

We've learned a lot along the way. Winning Supreme Court cases is the beginning, not the end, of the fight. That's even more true today than it was 50 years ago. When people think about a traditional civil rights practice, they think you file a case in court, you go to trial, you get a decision.

But we live in a world in which decisions are made in a much more integrated way, and the decision-makers who shape the legal rights of our clients are both in and outside the courtroom. They are prison officials, school board members and prosecutors who wield enormous discretion and oversight agencies. The public -- the court of public opinion, if you will -- is also a constituency that must be engaged. LDF has to be involved in setting the terms of the public debate around civil rights.

We can no longer assume that generations of Americans understand the importance of racial justice and equality, or even what those words mean. We cannot assume that even all of the judges we face understand the history, intended purpose or effect of our civil rights laws and statutes on the individuals they were designed to protect. And we are confronted with the task of identifying civil rights problems that look very different from those in the past but have the effect of perpetuating racial inequality. So the ability to communicate both inside and outside the courtroom has become essential to our work.

We also have to be cognizant of building alliances – we work to secure the rights of African Americans, but we have to be prepared to work with those who share our values about what America should provide to those who are in need.

TR: How, if at all, will the work you'll do and the issues you'll face under an Obama administration differ from what they would have been had Mitt Romney won the presidency?

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