(The Root) — The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. has a new leader, and she's already planning to position the nation's premier civil rights law organization to make as great a contribution to civil rights in the 21st century as it did in previous eras.
The organization's board of directors announced this week that attorney and law professor Sherrilyn Ifill will be the LDF's next president and director counsel. She'll be taking a leave of absence from her post at the University of Maryland School of Law to shape LDF's social-justice agenda in January 2012.
Perhaps best known for its role in the landmark school-desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, LDF has worked for decades to expand political participation, forestall injustice in the criminal-justice system, broaden avenues of educational opportunity, defend economic freedoms and further the nomination and appointment of fair-minded and diverse judges through impact litigation and advocacy.
"LDF changed America," Ifill told The Root. "But too many have been left behind, and the opening of the door is getting narrower and narrower."
We spoke to her about how she hopes to use her new role to remedy that inequality, why we can't forget about voting rights just because the presidential election is over and her hopes for President Barack Obama's second term.
The Root: What will be your biggest priorities and areas of focus in your new position?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, first, I'm on a learning curve to fully understand all the work LDF is doing in communities throughout this country. But I also want to listen to what we're hearing in those communities about the kinds of barriers to full access and opportunity that African Americans face on a day-to-day basis.
Of course there are key civil rights issues that seem to be priorities for the African-American community. There's the continuing and ongoing issue of the protection of voting rights. The Supreme Court has decided to hear a case from Shelby County, Ala., challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act next year. LDF will be filing briefs and participating at every level in that process.
The experience of voter-suppression efforts this past year would seem to reinforce the ongoing need for the Voting Rights Act. We'll be working to convince the court to defer to Congress' judgment that the Voting Rights Act is still needed.
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?
SI: LDF is a nonpartisan organization, so we don't root for Republicans or Democrats to win. But we hope that based on some of the issues that President Obama addressed in his first term and discussed for his second term, the administration will be prepared to turn its attention even more intensely to concerns of racial inequality, including the effects of the economic crisis on African-American communities, criminal justice and racial profiling, among other issues.
We give the administration high marks for fighting the voter-suppression laws in South Carolina and Texas this past year. We expect that they will continue to closely monitor voter access in those jurisdictions and vigorously push back against efforts to weaken the Voting Rights Act. We hope that the administration will be aggressive in promoting diversity in its appointments to the federal bench.
TR: Why are organizations like LDF still important today?
SI: It's become very fashionable to denigrate institutions, but institutions like the Legal Defense Fund are really the foundation that has brought America forward on race and civil rights. Given the scope of the work that remains to be done, we are hardly in a position to dismiss institutions that have the history, knowledge, skill and commitment to continue this work over the long haul.
Of course civil rights institutions must be prepared to reflect the needs of the day and to respond to new realities. That's what I'm hoping to do as president and director counsel: to position LDF to make as great a contribution to civil rights in the 21st century as it did in the 20th.