A Baltimore-based civil rights attorney who was asked to leave her seat on a train for reasons left unclear to her Jan. 17 said Amtrak officials have been “gracious and apologetic” in responding to the incident, and that the national passenger rail company has initiated plans to improve its service, but adds she still has concerns over its policies.
Sherrilyn Ifill, a law professor and the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, reported in a series of tweets Wednesday that she has spoken with company CEO Richard H. Anderson about the incident, in which a junior conductor abruptly asked Ifill to leave her seat in a nearly empty car.
The only explanation Ifill was given, she tweeted at the time, came when the conductor said she “has ‘other people coming who she wants to give this seat.’”
Ifill asked to speak to the conductor’s supervisor.
“When I was laying her out to the [lead] conductor, at one point, I said, ‘I can sit where I want,’ and I thought, ‘This isn’t 1950,’ ” she then wrote in her Twitter feed, which has more than 163,000 followers.
Neither Ifill, who has declined to comment on the incident since it happened, nor Amtrak have reported the race of the junior conductor or said whether they believe her request had racial overtones, but Ifill’s Twitter followers seemed to have little doubt.
Some wrote that the incident — which occurred on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend ― echoed the landmark moment in 1955 when the civil rights icon Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus.
“Rosa Parks in 2020. Unbelievable,” @ShaimaStreet tweeted.
Jason Abrams, an Amtrak spokesman, said in an email to The Baltimore Sun that the company takes responsibility for the incident and its aftermath.
“We should have responded publicly sooner, and we apologized for the incident and our slow response,” he wrote. “Amtrak is looking into the matter more closely so that we can prevent situations like this going forward.”
Abrams updated the sentiments in an email Wednesday.
“We have apologized to Ms. Ifill for the problems she encountered on her trip," he wrote. "We are committed to delivering excellent customer service, identifying our performance gaps and taking the necessary corrective action to help us prevent these gaps in the future."
Ifill, a prominent civil rights scholar and activist and a cousin of the late former Evening Sun reporter and PBS political analyst Gwen Ifill, live-tweeted the incident as well as what followed, including what she called Amtrak’s slowness in responding to her complaints.
Amtrak officials had apologized to Ifill privately by phone by the following morning, but they did not issue a public statement until later in the day.
Ifill, a longtime regular passenger, was not satisfied.
“I am colossally disappointed in @Amtrak for both this incident & the way it was handled,” she tweeted that afternoon, by which time the flap had made headlines and newscasts across the country.
The attorney promised in one tweet to keep followers up to date on the incident but did not do so until Wednesday.
Phoebe Plagens, a spokeswoman for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said Ifill decided to refrain from discussing the matter Thursday because she’s scheduled to speak at a commemorative event in Washington for her late cousin and wants to avoid distracting from the occasion.
Ifill was chosen to serve as keynote speaker at a ceremony at which the U.S. Postal Service is to dedicate a new postage stamp to Gwen Ifill, who died of cancer in 2016 at age 61.
In her Twitter feed Wednesday, Sherrilyn Ifill listed some of the measures she said Amtrak’s CEO has assured her the train service already has undertaken.
Amtrak, she tweeted, referred her complaints to the service’s Equal Opportunity Employment group for further investigation, committed to retraining the attendant, and plans to take steps to improve training for customer-facing employees and improve its communication and social media practices.
Ifill wrote that she considers such measures to be first steps.
“Many questions & concerns remain,” she tweeted. "I do not regard this incident as purely one of failed communication or poor social media policies."
She did not respond Wednesday to followers asking whether Amtrak officials clearly explained why she was asked to move in the first place.
Some remained angry on her behalf. Others thanked Ifill for pressing the issue.
“Change agent. Thank you for improving their service and holding them accountable,” @seandrayton tweeted.
Ifill also tweeted that she has learned since Jan. 17 of other incidents on Amtrak that have her concerned — one reason she has committed to meeting with senior officials in coming weeks.
“My focus is on ensuring that others who may not have a broad platform will be protected when they use our public rail svc,” she tweeted. “And I noted in my communication to the CEO that a number of other incidents have come to my attention ... which must also be taken seriously.”