New Leader Sets a New Tone for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Sherrilyn Ifill sets her focus on historic and new methods of fighting for African-American equality.

Posted: 01/28/2013 10:45 AM EST

(Photo: Courtesy Vassar College)

Sherrilyn Ifill insists that this is the time to play offense, not defense.

Ifill, the new president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that organizations working to protect and expand the rights of African-Americans must forcefully push a proactive agenda instead of only react to legal decisions that affect minority Americans.

“The offense game is figuring out the policies practices and laws that are interfering with the ability of African-Americans to attain educational and economic opportunities,” Ifill said, in an interview with BET.com.

“My focus is on those who are left behind,” she said. “Some of us made it through the door. We really have to look at the legal barriers that are keeping a segment of the African American population from educational opportunity and from economic opportunity. That’s going to be the laser-like focus of our attention.”

In taking on the leadership of the Legal Defense and Education Fund, Ifill is now among the nation’s most prominent voices in the civil rights world. She heads an organization that traces its beginnings to the legal department of the NAACP. The Legal Defense Fund was spun off from the central organization in 1939. Thurgood Marshall established it as a new, independent organization in 1957.

She comes to the position at a critical moment. The Supreme Court is reviewing a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, a bedrock piece of legislation for the civil rights movement that has been the federal government’s most significant tool in protecting minority voting rights.

Ifill is an expert in this area, both as an academic and a litigator. A professor of law at the University of Maryland for the past 20 years, she is a highly acclaimed civil rights scholar who specializes in voting rights cases. And earlier in her career, she served as assistant counsel in Legal Defense Fund’s New York office where she litigated voting rights cases, including the landmark Voting Rights Act case Houston Lawyers’ Association v. Attorney General of Texas.

Under her leadership, Ifill said the Legal Defense and Education Fund will be focusing on such issues as the rising number of Black students who wind up in prison as well as legal methods to protect and assist African-American homeowners hurt by the national housing crisis.

In taking a strategy of offense, the organization “is figuring out the policies that exist in schools that end up leading our kids into the prison system,” Ifill said. “We’ve figured out what we call the school-to-prison pipeline, that zero-tolerance policies — aggressive policing in the schools — have a deleterious effect on our kids. There isn’t a statute for that. But we’re now looking at how we can interrupt that system."

She also noted that the foreclosure crisis has hit minority communities particulary hard.

“Whatever wealth African-Americans have tend to be in their home, modest though it may be,” she said. “The housing and foreclosure crisis created the most expansive wealth drain ever in the African-American community. We need to get ahead of the curb and determine what are the policies that will allow African-Americans to recoup and how can we ensure that the new systems will provide opportunities for them.”

Still, Ifill said there are laws that were enacted in the 1960s and 1970s to offer protection in fair housing and voting rights cases that still need defending, and the Legal Defense Fund will remain vigorous in ensuring rights already won will not be lost.

“We have to defend the viability of those statutes — they have been challenged by those on the right as being unconstitutional in a variety of ways and settings,” Ifill said. “A good portion of our work must go to defending those statutes. “

Ifill, who is a widely acclaimed author, is a graduate of Vassar College, and received a degree from New York University School of Law. She is a younger cousin of journalist and PBS host Gwen Ifill.

The second woman to lead the Legal Defense Fund, she succeeds John Payton, who died in March 2012.


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