Sherrilyn Ifill, one of the nation’s leading civil rights lawyers, spoke on campus as the featured speaker at the re-launch of UCLA’s Thurgood Marshall Lecture Series.

Named for the nation’s first African American supreme court justice, the lecture honors the civil rights lawyer who led the team which won the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down racial segregation. This speaker series has been given new life by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and campus partners including the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s BruinX, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, the critical race studies program at UCLA School of Law and the UCLA Institute of American Cultures.

Introducing the event, Block praised Marshall for having the “the strategic vision of dismantling core systems of segregation and discrimination” and “the strategic discipline to pursue that goal effectively.”

Thurgood Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (now known as “LDF” and no longer part of the NAACP) 80 years ago. In 2013, Ifill became the organization’s seventh director-counsel. 

Block stressed the importance of the lecture series as an opportunity to hear from those sharing Marshall’s conviction that “equal justice under law is due to each and every person in the nation regardless of race, gender, national origin, religion or wealth.”

In a spirited, hour-long address held Feb. 4 in a packed room at the James West Alumni Center, Ifill lamented that in the public imagination civil rights have become isolated as a concern only of minority groups, instead of being properly understood as “the central work of democracy.” She reminded the audience that Marshall’s LDF team, including luminaries Constance Baker Motley and Jack Greenberg, “shifted the course of 20th Century democracy with their discipline and work” and that democratic values which some “claim as uniquely American were [actually] given life by civil rights lawyers.”

Speaking the day after the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, Ifill said that President Trump has been an “accelerant to white supremacy.”

She pointed to the post-Reconstruction rollback of civil rights as the “nadir” for African American legal rights and said that we are currently in another nadir. Calling this second nadir a “time of great suffering” she argued that it “must be our work to ensure it is as short as possible and to blunt its violence.”

Ifill also spoke to the kinds of issues her organization is working on such as voting rights, economic and political empowerment and home ownership. She also stressed the importance of minority groups working together to ensure equal justice for all.

In response to a question from the audience, Ifill stressed that advancing racial justice is not just the job of lawyers. Pointing out how local officials like sheriffs affect people’s daily lives, she urged people to vote in state, local and judicial elections and to stay involved in local affairs by attending local events like school board meetings. 

Ifill, who was an historian and law professor before she took over LDF, said that civil rights progress most quickly “when movements are happening at the same time as the litigation” adding “this is a movement time. And that movement of young people is powerful. They push us to do things faster.”