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Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, on the Battle Over RBG’s Seat and Making Every Vote Count

22 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

(Miss this week’s The Leadership Brief? This interview below was delivered to the inbox of Leadership Brief subscribers on Sunday morning, Sept. 27; to receive weekly emails of conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decisionmakers, click here.)

With the President and Attorney General waging an unceasing disinformation campaign to undermine public confidence in the presidential election, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), is bracing for post–Nov. 3 battle. In an earlier stint at the LDF, one of the nation’s premier civil rights organizations, Ifill specialized in litigating voting-rights cases. After leaving to teach law and write books, she returned in 2013, as the second female director to head the organization founded by Thurgood Marshall in 1940. (The LDF became a separate entity from the NAACP in 1957.)

Under Ifill, the LDF has grown dramatically. Its staff has nearly doubled in size since 2016 to over 100 employees, nearly half of them attorneys. And that was before donations exploded after the killing of George Floyd. Floyd’s murder sparked a wave of national protests and new awareness among many white Americans of the nation’s institutional racism. A surge of financial support, along with a pre-existing 80th-anniversary LDF campaign, is helping to fuel another round of expansion under Ifill. Next year the organization plans to hire 40 more staffers and open its first Southern office in order to establish an on-the-ground presence in the region of the country that still accounts for the vast majority of its cases. (The LDF has offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.)

Ifill, 57, joined TIME for a video conversation from Baltimore to discuss the intense efforts to suppress voting rights, her reaction to the latest developments in the Breonna Taylor case and the importance of filling Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat after the Inauguration. Ifill, noting that early voting has already started in some states, tweeted that “it would be an obscenity to rush through the confirmation of a SCOTUS nominee during a presidential election.”

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(This interview with LDF president and director-counsel Sherrilyn Ifill has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

What is your reaction to the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

One of the things I love about Justice Ginsburg is that when she was lauded and described as a courageous pioneer, she was always careful to say that she regarded Thurgood Marshall as the lawyer who exhibited true courage because he litigated cases where he had to fear for his own life and safety.

What is your view on how the process for replacing her should be handled?

We oppose any effort by President Trump and Senate majority leader [Mitch] McConnell to nominate and hold a vote on a replacement for Justice Ginsburg until our election is completed, a new Senate is sworn in on Jan. 3, 2021, and the next President is inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2021. This election is already under way. Early and absentee voting have commenced in multiple states across the country. Trying to rush through a nomination and appointment to the country’s highest court during this electoral period would represent a perilous setback for our democracy.

What do you think of the grand jurys decision in the Breonna Taylor case?

What this means is that no one will face accountability for taking the life of a promising young Black woman—blow for the Taylor family, for the Louisville community and for the Black community that has been working for justice for Ms. Taylor across the nation. The announcement reaffirms that we need a drastic transformation in the regime of impunity that protects police officers who kill innocent Black people, and in how we define and support public-safety infrastructures in our country.

What are the other core issues facing your organization today?

They’re all interrelated, but I think without question, the issue of voter suppression sits at the top of the list. The ability to participate in the political process unlocks many of the other issues. It unlocks the opportunity to advance criminal-justice reform. It unlocks the possibilities of education equity. It unlocks the key to fair housing practices and to issues that address economic advancement. So to be in a moment in 2020, where we’re facing what is the most extraordinary level, depth and breadth of voter suppression that I have witnessed in the decades that I have been a voting-rights lawyer, is actually quite astonishing.

When did this cycle of intense voter suppression begin?

The June 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision from the United States Supreme Court was a game changer. Prior to that decision, most of the states in the South and a number in the North as well, including three boroughs of New York City [Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx], could not make voting changes unless they were first to be precleared by a federal authority, either the Attorney General or the federal District Court in D.C. So you had a screen for voter suppression. The Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 meant that jurisdictions since 1965 that had been unable to make voting changes without first having them reviewed to determine whether they were discriminatory in their effect, now could do so and began doing so with great alacrity. Even worse, the tactics used by these jurisdictions became copied; it became a kind of copycat crime. Now places that have not had a long history of voter suppression were getting into the act too. This problem, which I think most people understood to be a largely, although not exclusively, regional problem, has been nationalized. Now we find voter suppression everywhere.

I hate to ask this next question because it legitimizes something that’s unthinkable, but what preparations are you making for post–Nov. 3rd if the President challenges the legitimacy of the election?

The good news is that we’ve faced contested elections in the past. We did have Bush vs. Gore. Obviously, it was a considerably different time and considerably different candidate. We do know what the laws are that are in place. We do know that we have the capacity to do a legal challenge. The Supreme Court did not issue its decision which ended the recount in Florida until Dec. 12th, and I encourage people to remember that. The Republic did not fall apart.

Beyond the legal issues, what are your concerns about the upcoming election?

What is more worrisome than the President potentially legally challenging the outcome of the election is the President creating an atmosphere of panic and disinformation. We have our concerns, especially given the environment of the riling-up of armed militia groups, which the President has been unwilling to tamp down in his rhetoric, and which he may be inclined to actually rile up during that period. So there’s significant safety issues. And we have yet to see a concerted, direct effort by Attorney General [William] Barr to address the reality of white-supremacist violence in the country, and to articulate any plan or steps that the Department of Justice, the FBI or other federal law-enforcement agencies would undertake to protect against that.

We’re facing what is the most extraordinary level, depth and breadth of voter suppression that I have witnessed in the decades that I have been a voting-rights lawyer.
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Back to the legal issues. How do you prepare for those?

We very often have litigation that we have to file on Election Day because of lack of access for Black voters in communities around the country. Sometimes, we file suit within days of elections because of voters that were illegally placed on inactive lists or unable to cast true ballots. In the days that follow, there are going to be absentee ballots that should be counted. We have been encouraging elderly members of our community and others who are vulnerable to COVID-19 to vote absentee. The President has been engaged in a disinformation campaign about the legitimacy of absentee voting, which is a legitimate form of voting. We want to make sure that the votes are counted. This is about participation, and we want to make sure that African-American voters have a meaningful opportunity to feel that they participated in the political process. So there’s quite a bit of work to do after the election, no matter who thinks that they’re ahead and no matter what the incumbent may decide to do in terms of challenging the outcome.

Do you have an Election Day battle plan? Will you have people on the ground around the country?

Yes and yes. And like any person going into battle, I would be foolish to share the battle plan.

Fair enough.

But suffice it to say that, yes, we’ll be mostly focused on the South and have been since we were founded in 1940. The majority of Black people still live in the South, and that’s where our attention has been focused over the years. We know the places where there have been problems in the past.

Another big area of focus is police brutality and the subsequent response by law enforcement to the protests.

Criminal justice in general has long been a huge issue for the LDF. We have a long history of working in the death-penalty space. We challenge racism in the criminal-justice system at every level. Exclusion from juries, and so forth. But the issue of police brutality and police violence against unarmed African Americans has been part of LDF’s work since Thurgood Marshall, who was the first director-counsel of the organization.

Where have your efforts been focused?

Obviously, since 2014, when Eric Garner was killed in New York and the nation, the world, saw that video of him being choked to death and saying “I can’t breathe.” Mike Brown was killed later that year, and in early 2015, just a few months thereafter, we launched a policing-reform campaign to address the issue of police violence against unarmed African Americans because we felt that a moment was upon us that required us to really marshal significant resources to address this issue. We at that time had a fully engaged Department of Justice. And both Attorney General [Eric] Holder and then Attorney General [Loretta] Lynch were quite committed to using the resources of the department to fulfill the commitment to ensuring that there is constitutional policing. The President himself created a task force, a 21st century policing task force.

What are the most effective ways to combat police brutality?

We try to push measures of accountability. We’re after all a legal organization. A lot of the issue of police violence against unarmed African Americans is grounded in the lack of accountability: what I call the regime of impunity that has been allowed to develop and that lies at the doorstep of the legal system that has allowed this to happen. We’re supportive of the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act that was passed by the House in June, that includes many of the measures that we have been championing for a number of years.

The President is running on law and order. What is your view of framing the current protests under the law-and-order banner?

It’s a tried-and-true dog whistle, the law-and-order dog whistle, and we recognize it for what it is. The bottom line is a majority of Americans understood, saw the video of George Floyd being tortured and killed. And understood that something was deeply broken with policing in this country as it relates to African-American communities. And so we were very clear that, of course, we encourage peaceful protests, but we’re also very clear that the overwhelming majority of the protests have been peaceful. People are in the streets because they are impatient now with change. It’s five years, six years since we saw Eric Garner being killed saying “I can’t breathe” and George Floyd being killed saying “I can’t breathe.” Six years between them. It’s failure to change things significantly so that the George Floyd video didn’t happen. But it did happen, and not only did it happen, the officer was so certain that nothing had changed that he was kneeling on George Floyd’s neck with his hands in his pockets looking dead into the camera, unafraid, because he felt certain that nothing had changed.

This is an obvious question, but how important are the videos in pulling back the curtain for white America?

I find it very sad that it is so important. But it is. And the reason I find it sad is because this issue has been with us certainly for my entire lifetime. These are matters that have been discussed year after year, decade after decade. So frankly, one of the things I think we have to confront as a democracy is the fact that this could have gone so unrecognized by so much of the white population, despite it being the constant subject of conversation. So how is it possible that these videos were so surprising? How is it possible that so many white people had not heard of The Talk? At some point, we have to actually have a conversation about that.

You wrote a book on lynching, On the Courthouse Lawn, that Bryan Stevenson called a “seminal work.” How do you put the police brutality we’re witnessing in the context of the nation’s reprehensible history of lynching?

What connects all of this is this narrative about Black people in general, and certainly about Black men, that brands Black men and people as criminals and that assigns to Black people a lesser level of humanity. Something that’s intolerable becomes tolerable. And I wrote the book about lynching because that’s at its most extreme. It’s at its most extreme to have a crowd of people watching the torture and killing of someone. And I wanted to understand how that crowd could be filled with ordinary white people—with housewives and law students and pharmacists.

The book focuses on how much has to go wrong for there to be a culture of lynching, multiple system failure.

One way that it happens is this narrative that assigns a lack of humanity to Black people. But it also happens because institutions failed to do their job. Because the legal profession failed to do its job. Because prosecutors, even though they had evidence of who the lynchers were, didn’t prosecute them. Because local sheriffs knew who the lynchers were and didn’t arrest them. Because members of the media chose not to report about lynching, or reported about lynchings before they happened, almost inviting people to this event. So I was very interested in the individual complicity. But also in the institutional complicity and trying to really look at the role that all of these institutions played in allowing this to happen.

Do you have another book planned about this period in American history?

I’m actually restraining myself! Yes, absolutely. I’ve got three books in the queue. One is the next period to come. Not actually about this period. About what I think we can learn from this period about what the next period really must be for our democracy. But I’ve also been working on a book about the 14th Amendment, and I’d actually stopped writing a book about Supreme Court confirmation hearings on race, when I took this job.

Is there any tangible value in that consciousness raising that’s under way? What do you hope people will do beyond making a donation and having a book group to discuss books like Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste?

We have these moments when there’s a reckoning. This is one of those moments when Americans of goodwill, those who care about democracy, of whatever race, feel drawn to this and feel compelled to speak and feel compelled to work for change. They make our democracy better. They make our democracy better when we have moments when a majority of Americans can link arms and unite in the need for transformation. The first and most important thing is for people to understand that what has been happening is not working. Whatever has been happening, whatever reforms have been imposed, are not working. And it’s now time for us to have the courage and to be bold enough to recognize that we have to think in more transformational terms.

It’s now time for us to have the courage and to be bold enough to recognize that we have to think in more transformational terms.
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Did you ever cross paths with Thurgood Marshall?

My first case ended up in the Supreme Court. I was at that time not even five years out of law school. Anyway, the then head of the Legal Defense Fund, Julius Chambers, argued the case. I had litigated the case through that trial and in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. So I got to sit at the counsel table before Thurgood Marshall. I’ll never forget it. I mean it was just—I actually—when I think about it now, it almost makes my head spin because it felt so surreal.

Did you have a moment, any eye contact, any exchange from the bench?

No, I was just sitting there, wide-eyed and blubbering.

What do you think of Attorney General William Barr?

[Long pause] I don’t think in my lifetime I’ve ever seen an Attorney General quite like this one. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. I am deeply concerned with what I regard as an abdication of core responsibilities around civil rights enforcement. I’m astonished to see the extent to which the Attorney General is willing to say things that are blatantly irresponsible but that parrot some of the language of the President. So recently, the effort to kind of discredit absentee voting, even though he himself has voted absentee in both 2012 and 2019 in Virginia—this is extremely irresponsible conduct. I find his rhetoric, his language and the absence of civil rights enforcement, the refusal to engage in pattern-and-practice investigations of police departments engaged in unconstitutional policing—these are very serious matters. At the end of the day, the Attorney General remains the chief law-enforcement officer and the chief enforcer of the nation’s civil rights laws. Or at least should be. But now we find ourselves in 2020 with state civil rights violations and a federal government that is unwilling to take on the role of enforcer of the nation’s civil rights laws. To the contrary, it’s actively engaged in dismantling the civil rights infrastructure.

What is your view of reparations?

I view the term quite expansively. I think when most people talk about reparations, they’re talking about reparations for slavery, which is a form of reparations and certainly should be studied. We support HR40, which was the deal in the House for a commission to study reparations. It’s hard for me to understand how and why people would be against a commission to study reparations.

Are there other measures that should be considered?

I think that the conversation about reparations should be expanded. I wrote about it in the context of lynching. I use that term in its original meaning, that it is to repair. What is required to repair the damage done to communities that suffered from lynchings, which were after all mass kind of events of public terrorism? I think that there is reparation that should be studied for 20th century segregation and housing segregation, in particular, which is the principal reason for the deep wealth disparities and inequalities that exist between Blacks and whites in this country. For every white person who feels that their family just worked really hard, I can point you to a federal housing policy that also explains why your grandparents or great-grandparents would have had a better shot at accumulating wealth through homeownership than mine.

For every white person who feels that their family just worked really hard, I can point you to a federal housing policy that also explains why your grandparents or great-grandparents would have had a better shot at accumulating wealth through homeownership than mine.
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It’s been such an event-filled year. Has there been a moment this year that in particular stands out where you are filled with I’m going to rage, despair and then hope?

I would say that I really was very moved by the family of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in Kenosha, Wis. By the mom who expressed a kind of incredibly beautiful vision of who we are, that was obviously very much infused with her faith. But also by the sister who expressed the kind of dry-eyed conviction about what has to change. I felt their pain. It was awful that they even had to be in that position. But what I saw was incredible beauty. What I saw was incredible depth. What I saw was incredible nobility.

And rage?

During the Wisconsin primary, when we saw all those people standing on lines, I was outraged, furious, that the Supreme Court had refused to take up the matter and really had ignored the findings of the district court about what the effects would be. The decision happened to come out the same week that it was reported that although Black people constitute 28% of the population of Milwaukee, they were constituting 70% of COVID deaths. And when I saw all of those people standing on that line to vote, it just absolutely outraged me that they would be compelled to be put in that position. And then at the same time it lifted my spirits that they were willing to be put in that position. That they were determined to vote no matter what, and that they put their masks on. Some came with chairs, and they came with water bottles, and they were prepared to stand in line for hours despite the knowledge of the deadliness of the pandemic. And it still infuriates me now, just talking about it.

You have almost a quarter of a million Twitter followers. Do you think social media on balance has been a force for good or evil?

I think that unregulated social media is the problem. I think that social media has the potential to be a force for good. I try to use it for good. And I try to use it responsibly, as a source of information, and encouragement, and camaraderie. But I also think that it is the Wild West. And especially after what we saw happen in Kenosha, where you have a group that posts the kind of call to arms, to have people come and converge on the place armed to confront protesters—something that actually violates existing Facebook policy but that didn’t come down.

I saw that you retweeted Naomi Osaka’s tweet after she won the U.S. Open tennis championship: “I’d like to thank my ancestors because every time I remember their blood runs through my veins I am reminded that I cannot lose.” What about that statement moved you?

I love to see someone so young to be able to understand how important it is to be able to tap into that power, to see yourself in a lineage. And to be able to draw some of your strength and your determination from that recognition. It’s beautiful.

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LEADERSHIP BOOKS: I’m a big reader of kind of civil rights movement books, but I actually believe that they are leadership books. Certainly John Lewis’ Walking With the Wind is—my copy is extremely dog-eared. Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters about King. And then, of course, the books about the leaders in the Legal Defense Fund. Jack Greenberg’s Crusaders in the Courts. Constance Baker Motley’s Equal Justice Under Law. Just really extraordinary books about what it was like to work in, and lead, the LDF during the most volatile civil rights periods in our country’s history.

AUTHOR: To me, there’s no greater novelist than Toni Morrison. I also read a lot of her essays, which I love also, not just her novels. And James Baldwin because I think that this country is deeply mysterious, and I very much enjoy the journey of trying to understand this country.

APP: Apple Music. I can’t imagine how I could conceive of kind of doing this work and holding myself together without my music.

EXERCISE: Every other day, I try to get on the Peloton.

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Correction, September 27

The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Sherrilyn Ifill was the first female president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Elaine Jones, who headed the organization from 1993 to 2004, was the first woman to hold the position.

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