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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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.
Her husband, Ivo Knobloch, was supportive as Ifill flew to the South. The two met in the early 1980s while in Spain studying Spanish — Ifill on a semester abroad and Knobloch as a merchant marine. Knobloch, who is white and German, investigates maritime accidents. When they wed in 1988, their interracial marriage was a relative rarity — and also something of an inadvertent lesson on race in America.
“I don’t think most little black girls . . . in the ’60s, grew up thinking that they would grow up to marry a white man,” she said. “So I have always understood the questions. I was never confused about it. But you just live your life — showing people that we are a normal loving couple.”
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Ifill continued her civil rights work after joining the Maryland law school in 1993.
One of her most notable cases involved an effort to stop a landfill from being built near St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harford County. Ifill and her students brought black and white residents of the area together in protest; she represented them for free in a case that spanned 21 years. She and her clients discovered that the church and its graveyard, which had been established by emancipated slaves in the 19th century, contained remains of several black veterans of the Civil War.
In 2010, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in her favor.
“I can’t speak ill of her,” said Richard Schafer, president of Maryland Reclamation Associates and the man on the other side of the lawsuit. “We differed on some things, but other than that, she stands up for her clients. She was always cordial.”
When Ifill worked as part of a team seeking to stop a highway from being built adjacent to Jersey Heights, a black neighborhood on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, she started her research by asking: “So, tell me about the history of this place.”
Ifill and her students interviewed every resident they could find who was older than 88. In this way, they were able to document two lynchings of black men in the 1930s — one in Princess Anne, another in Salisbury. Ifill argues that the attempt to build the highway near Jersey Heights — the third such highway to cut through or disrupt the neighborhood — is a direct result of the racial discrimination and racial violence of the past and an expression of flagrant disregard for communities of color.
“She values dignity; she is very strident about making sure that everyone gets the kind of respect they are entitled to,” said her former boss Phoebe Haddon, dean of Maryland’s law school. (Ifill is on leave from the law school.)
Ifill’s work drew hate mail. The letters never caused her to fear but have, at times, shaken her. So she doesn’t share the names of her daughters in her public writings out of an abundance of caution.
“We can’t live in the past, but we have to understand how we came to be where we are,” she said in that empty classroom at the law school. “You have to remember the challenge of the time. You now have adult generations that have no personal history or engagement with the civil rights movement or era. So, you really do have to talk it all out.”
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“For a sense of the evolving nature of the Constitution we need look no further than the first three words of the document’s preamble: ‘We the People.’ When the Founding Fathers used this phrase in 1787, they did not have in mind the majority of America’s citizens.” — Marshall, 1987
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Ifill was selected to direct LDF in a nationwide search following the sudden death last year of John A. Payton, the legendary Washington lawyer and inspirational leader of LDF from 2008 to 2012.
Taking the top job at LDF requires sacrifices, starting with a lengthy commute. She no longer has time to pursue her broad interests and has given up directing the children’s choir at Mount Calvary AME Church in Towson and her seat on the board of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. She will no longer chair the board of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.
Three days a week, she leaves her home in Baltimore County and lives in New York, where LDF is headquartered. She oversees a staff of 75 split between offices there and in Washington, and she will be responsible for fundraising for the nonprofit, which operates exclusively from donations. She’s off to a good start: Soros’s son Jonathan and his wife donated $100,000 in November — the month Ifill was named to lead LDF. And several Baltimore law firms have pledged five- and six-figure donations for the next several years. LDF’s 25 lawyers litigate about 30 cases a year and participate in several more in a “friend of the court” capacity. They are involved as a party or intervenor in one or two cases before the Supreme Court each year and file briefs in several more. They filed one such brief this term, in a case in which a white student challenged an affirmative action program at the University of Texas. The justices are expected to hand down a decision this spring.
Those who argue against affirmative-action laws point to President Obama’s election and reelection as proof that they are no longer needed. “In some sense this is a question of what assumptions do you make about human nature and our body polity. I think we have progressed a tremendous amount,” said David Rivkin, who wrote a brief on behalf of the libertarian Cato Institute arguing for the dismantling of affirmative-action programs in higher education.“Others think the progress we made is very fragile, and that you have to continue to prod society along.”
Count Ifill among the prodders.
“What is ironic about the election of Barack Obama as our first African American president is that just seeing him, just seeing him get off Marine One, seeing him on television for some people feels like they are having a conversation about race,” Ifill said. “That’s not a conversation. People feel exhausted just engaging with the image of a black president. That’s not a substitute for a conversation about what racial equity looks like. That’s not a substitute for a conversation about the ways in which implicit bias continues to affect the life outcomes of racial minorities. It is not a conversation.”
Thurgood Marshall would no doubt agree.