Sherrilyn Ifill has known she wanted to be a civil rights lawyer since she was a child.
The former president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) was not the daughter of attorneys or from a family of legal minds. She quickly dispels that notion.
“The first lawyer I met was my first day of law school,” she says with a laugh. Despite that, she knew the law was her calling: “There was no other path for me.”
Today Ifill is considered one of the most provocative, tenacious and authoritative scholars of civil rights law in the country. And she has called Baltimore home for 30 years.
Born in New York, Ifill remembers learning about the Civil Rights Movement from TV programs.
“My father was very kind of politically oriented. So we watched a lot of documentaries,” Ifill recalls. “Seeing Barbara Jordan [the Texas lawyer and politician] was a revelation for me. … She was this incredibly powerful Black woman who spoke with authority and a sense of ownership about the Constitution.”
Ifill says she knew that her vision of being a lawyer would include working on behalf of those who were marginalized in America, particularly Black people and other communities of color.
“The law is a powerful tool,” Ifill says. “It’s not the only tool, but it is a powerful tool for vindicating the rights of people whose voices have been silenced.”
After earning her law degree, Ifill worked for five years as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She moved to Baltimore to take a teaching position at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in 1993.
That job interview was the first time she visited Baltimore.
“I wanted to be in a very diverse town,” Ifill says, adding that she also wanted to be in a town that cared about food and had good places to eat. “Baltimore was that and I liked the vibe.”
For 20 years, Ifill taught students civil procedure and constitutional law. She introduced clinical law programs focused on environmental justice, the rights of formerly incarcerated people and reparations.
At the same time, she and her husband raised their young children in Baltimore, laying down roots near Edmondson Village. They were active in church and community, enjoying family time at Shake & Bake Family Center, going to Stone Soul Picnic and visiting Artscape.
“I call Baltimore my adopted home,” she says. “You live somewhere and you embrace that place.”
Ifill was embraced by her colleagues at the Carey School of Law and by her students, who treated her with “absolute reverence,” says Renée McDonald Hutchins, who is now dean of the law school, but worked as a professor alongside Ifill for almost a decade.
“She has this amazing ability to, without question, be the smartest person in the room, but never make anybody else feel dumb,” Hutchins says.
Some lessons learned from Ifill were more personal than professional for Hutchins. Both were managing the dual pressures of being moms to young children and working as tenure-track professors.
Hutchins says Ifill was helpful in reminding her to take care of herself, too. She told Hutchins to “find a way to carve out space to fill your own cup back up.”
Ifill is perhaps best known by the public as president of the Legal Defense Fund, a position that lured her away from teaching in 2013. LDF was founded in 1940 by Baltimore native and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to uphold civil rights and advocate for racial equality.
Ifill spent nearly 10 years leading LDF during a time of pervasive challenges. Although the organization is headquartered in New York, she expanded its office in Washington D.C., giving LDF a foothold in the nation’s capital, where issues such as voting rights, police brutality and racial discrimination were being politicized in a volatile manner.
“The Trump years were very, very turbulent and stretched us in ways that we had never been stretched before,” Ifill says, noting the numerous lawsuits filed by LDF against the administration on a variety of policies.
“I’m very proud of the courage we showed,” she says.
Ifill kept her staff in mind as she made plans to exit LDF in 2022, strengthening financials “beyond our wildest dreams” and setting up a smooth transition for her successor.
“It was hard,” Ifill says about her decision to leave. “Leading LDF was my dream job. It almost felt like I was perfectly made for it.”
While no longer in charge of day-to-day skirmishes, Ifill has not left the battlefield. She continues to speak publicly on behalf of civil rights and racial justice.
“To be in a war for justice and a war for equality, doesn’t mean that you’re at the front all the time,” Ifill says. “Sometimes you have to have shore leave … and then come back out fighting and that’s kind of what I’m doing.”
She is writing her second book, which is to be titled “Is This America?” The name is a play on the question posed by Fannie Lou Hamer in a speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Hamer, a Black activist from Mississippi, was brutally beaten for trying to register to vote.
As a student of history, that moment was memorable for Ifill. Her book, while not directly answering Hamer’s question, will offer a vision for moving the country forward, Ifill says.
“When I was a kid, I dreamed of being part of the Civil Rights Movement, and I was part of it,” Ifill says. “And I am part of it because there isn’t just one movement.”
Hometown: New York City (Queens)
Current residence: Baltimore
Education: B.A., Vassar College; J.D., New York University School of Law
Professional experience or career history: Fellow, American Civil Liberties Union; assistant counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; professor, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law; author, “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century”; president and director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (2013-2022); currently senior fellow, Ford Foundation
Civic/charitable activities: Named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World (2021); recipient, Brandeis Medal, Radcliffe Medal, Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association (2022), Attorney of the Year from The American Lawyer magazine (2020); board member: Baltimore Museum of Art, Mellon Foundation, New York University School of Law
Family: Married with three children