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Civil rights attorney Ifill asked to surrender seat on Baltimore-bound Amtrak train as MLK weekend began

Sherrilyn Ifill, shown here speaking at a University of Baltimore School of Law event, was asked on Friday to give up her seat on an Amtrak train returning to Baltimore from New York.
Sherrilyn Ifill, shown here speaking at a University of Baltimore School of Law event, was asked on Friday to give up her seat on an Amtrak train returning to Baltimore from New York. (Jonathan Pitts/Baltimore Sun)

Sherrilyn Ifill was returning to Baltimore from Washington on Amtrak train 80 Friday, as she often does, when she says a junior conductor approached and asked her to give up her seat.

To say that the internationally known civil rights attorney, scholar and activist bristled would be an understatement.

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“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,’ ” the Baltimore resident, who is African American, wrote in her Twitter feed Friday night.

What unfolded in the pages of Ifill’s Twitter account was a sometimes irate description of an incident that is evoking memories of just the kinds of civil rights violations she has spent her career fighting, all as Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend — a time she calls “sacred” — was getting under way.

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“I am colossally disappointed in @Amtrak for both this incident & the way it was handled,’” she tweeted Saturday afternoon.

Jason Abrams, an Amtrak spokesman, said in an email to The Sun that the company tried “numerous times” to reach out to Ifill directly Friday night and apologized to her upon finally reaching her Saturday morning.

“We should have responded publicly sooner, and we apologized for the incident and our slow response,” Abrams wrote. “Amtrak is looking into the matter more closely so that we can prevent situations like this going forward.”

Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and cousin of the late former Evening Sun reporter and PBS political analyst Gwen Ifill, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to her Twitter account, she was sitting in a general-admission area of a largely empty passenger car Friday when a female conductor asked her to leave her seat and move into another car.

“The conductor has asked me to leave my seat because she has ‘other people coming who she wants to give this seat.’ Can you please explain?” she tweeted at 5:36 p.m. Friday, directing her words toward Amtrak officials as well as her more than 163,000 Twitter followers.

Ifill later called for a lead conductor in order to voice her displeasure, but the encounter that followed only compounded her frustration.

“I laid it out. [The younger conductor] now said ‘she wanted to keep empty seats at the front,’ ” Ifill wrote. “Me: 'oh so there were no ‘special passengers.’ ”

The senior conductor offered his apologies, Ifill wrote, but the younger agent simply said, “Follow me; I’ve found a seat for you.”

“What really disturbs me is how someone with this authority can just entirely make up something so ridiculous and approach a customer in this way,” Ifill tweeted. “I did wonder when she was carrying on — how far will I take this? And the immediate answer in my mind was ‘all the way.’ ”

On Saturday morning, Ifill noted that as the situation developed, Amtrak officials began following her account online but nonetheless waited to reach out to her publicly, via Twitter, or privately by direct message.

“You are doing this all wrong,” she wrote in a tweet meant for Amtrak officials.

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As Ifill described the events in real time, her followers took umbrage — and pointed to what they clearly saw as painful echoes.

Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 is considered a turning point in the civil rights movement, and the fact that this incident happened on the cusp of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend only deepened the irony for some.

“Shades of similarities from civil rights history are [so] fitting here that it doesn’t even need mentioning ... what this reminds you of,” @_amroali tweeted.

“Rosa Parks in 2020. Unbelievable,” @ShaimaStreet wrote.

As of Saturday evening, neither Ifill nor Amtrak officials had publlcly conjectured about the motive behind the conductor’s request.

Other followers inquired whether Amtrak “has federal contracts” (operated as a nonprofit, it receives both state and federal subsidies), demanded the conductor’s firing and called for an investigation.

Spokespersons for the passenger service have informed Ifill that an investigation is under way.

“We apologize again for what happened on the train last night and understand that both this and our slow response are upsetting," one Amtrak official tweeted on Saturday. "Our senior business and operations executives are sharing the information we received from you by phone with internal teams so that we can learn and prevent situations like this going forward.”

Ifill’s tone was partially conciliatory. She wrote that Amtrak officials who called her Saturday morning were “forthright, respectful & apologetic,” and as a longtime customer ― and even survivor of an Amtrak derailment — she remains committed to using the service.

But with Martin Luther King Jr. Day hours away, she suggested the incident had a larger meaning.

“Thank you all for the attention and support," she tweeted to followers. "Keep fighting and honor #MLK this weekend. It’s about our individual dignity, the strength of our communities, and the integrity of our democracy.”

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