The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sherrilyn Ifill stepping down from NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Longtime second-in-command Janai Nelson will take over one of the country’s top civil rights groups this spring, but no official transition date has been set

Sherrilyn Ifill will step down as head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund this spring. (NAACP LDF)
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Sherrilyn Ifill was 10 years old when a New York City police officer shot and killed a boy her age in her Jamaica, Queens, neighborhood. She heard parents mourning his death at the bus stop on the way to school, talking about his family at the grocery store.

Four decades later, she presided over one of the U.S.’s preeminent civil rights groups as the nation grappled with a new racial reckoning, from police violence to voting rights to equity in education. Ifill, 58, will step down as president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the spring of 2022, she told The Washington Post.

Her longtime deputy, Janai Nelson, 49, will succeed her, the organization said; an official date for the transition has not been set.

Since taking over the LDF in 2013, Ifill presided over massive growth in the organization. Its staff grew from 55 employees, mostly attorneys, to more than 150, expanding into new grass-roots organizing and communications departments. The LDF created its own historical archive to document legal milestones and trailblazers of the civil rights movement. It established an internal think tank, the Thurgood Marshall Institute, to research civil rights law and structural racism.

The president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on race relations in the Trump era

A law professor by training, Ifill grew the LDF’s budget by a factor of five — from $12 million to $60 million — and added nearly $100 million to its endowment fund.

Her time as president and director-counsel began as the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down election law preclearance requirements from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a ruling that experts say opened the door for increasingly stringent voter restrictions in Republican-controlled states. It ends after landmark victories against President Donald Trump and his administration: suing the then-president to defeat a commission on voter fraud, Attorney General William P. Barr on a policing commission and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy over planned mail slowdowns ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

“I have accomplished really what I set out to accomplish when I came aboard in strengthening this organization and strengthening our work, ensuring that we were understood as mission-critical to American democracy, positioning us as a civil rights organization and positioning civil rights work as democracy work,” Ifill said.

“I think it’s not a small thing, the growth of the organization. If this was a private business, I’d be on the cover of Forbes magazine,” she added. “We need the resources to do the work, and we need to be unapologetic about that.”

She also transformed the organization into one of the leading opponents of the Trump White House. Ifill’s goal during the Trump administration, she said in an interview, was for the LDF to “function as a private [Department of Justice].” That meant not only enforcing civil rights protections in court, but also assuming the public platform of the nation’s crusader for racial equity.

The LDF, founded by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall out of the NAACP’s legal department in 1940, traditionally upheld an informal creed: LDF lawyers do the work, but don’t talk about it. Organizing and campaigning through the news media were the purview of community activists, not trial attorneys, who wanted to walk into courtrooms — often controlled by White judges and juries — backed solely by their legal credentials.

“Well, I got rid of that,” Ifill said. “We do toot our own horn. I toot the horn.”

Transcript: Race in America: Allyship with NAACP LDF President & Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill & AAJC President John C. Yang

She became a constant on cable news and newspaper editorial pages. Time magazine named her one of the world’s most influential people in 2021. Her Twitter presence ballooned past 350,000 followers.

She maintained that media platform while playing an involved role in the agency’s legal practice. She is known for leaving detailed notes on draft legal filings, and sitting at counsel’s table during high-profile oral arguments.

“She really understands that although the work of LDF is primarily litigation, that’s one tool in a much more multipronged effort to make our country more just,” said Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood. “Of course, LDF has a long and storied history, but she has put it on the map in the 21st century.”

Ifill has pressed President Biden and the Democratic Congress to nominate and confirm increasingly liberal judicial nominees in an effort to rebalance the federal judiciary after Trump and a GOP-led Senate stacked the bench with hard-line conservatives, including three Supreme Court justices. That philosophy has at times run counter to that of other Democrats, who have instead suggested Biden should make judicial appointments as quickly as possible to counter Republican advances.

She has sparred with fellow members of Biden’s commission on Supreme Court expansions, arguing that adding justices — a move Biden has not publicly endorsed — would lend legitimacy to the court by diversifying its ranks.

“I don’t think that the judiciary should be all women. I don’t think the judiciary should be all Black women and I don’t think the judiciary should be all civil rights lawyers,” she said. “But I surely do think that all of those populations of lawyers should be well-represented on the bench. And to the extent that it has gotten so imbalanced, it is actually critical that we aggressively attempt to ensure that the bench is diverse.”

Ifill said her departure from the LDF, which she first joined as assistant counsel in 1988 before leaving to teach law at the University of Maryland, is not a retirement. “I don’t think it will be a time of leisure,” she said.

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She has a contract to write a book with Penguin Press on “America’s ongoing embrace of white supremacy” that is set to publish in 2023. Some civil rights leaders and parts of the Democratic Party’s left wing have hopes she will join the Biden administration. Richards said she hoped Biden would nominate Ifill as a justice to the Supreme Court.

“I think her unique moral authority and brilliance about the most pressing issues in our democracy forced people to understand that [racial equity] is not just a civil rights issue, that everyone has a stake in addressing these issues,” said U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, a longtime friend of Ifill’s. “She expanded the notion of who is doing the work of preserving and maintaining our democracy, and forced everyone to see themselves as part of this bigger project.”

Nelson, Ifill’s successor, joined the LDF as Ifill’s principal lieutenant in 2014, and helped drive research on combating partisan and racial gerrymandering. More recently, she has emerged as the agency’s lead on education equity and defending race-informed school curriculums.

Nelson told The Post she aims to position the LDF to take on more issues of economic and climate justice in hopes of attracting a new generation of civil rights attorneys. She said the promotion to lead the organization was “the responsibility of a lifetime,” and “requires a sober recognition” of the country’s polarization and backlash to advances in the civil rights movement.

“We are at a moment where there has been and continues to be a broad awakening,” Nelson said, “and that awakening has to be met with action.”

correction

A previous version of this story misstated the name of the former president of Planned Parenthood. She is Cecile Richards.

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