Understanding ‘Brown’ 8/14/14 08/14/14 10:14:39 AM
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Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, addresses conference-goers at last Thursday’s Eighth Circuit Judicial Conference awards luncheon. Her topic: Understanding Brown (In Celebration of the 60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education).
Civil Rights Litigator Offers Perspective
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
Choosing Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director–Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., to address the large luncheon crowd at the Eighth Circuit Judicial Conference last Thursday was a no-brainer.
Yes, she is well equipped to tackle the ramifications of the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.
As the seventh person to hold her position, she has worked her way up the ladder at the organization that is “totally separate from the NAACP,” after graduating from Vassar College and New York University School of Law. She argued the landmark Voting Rights Act case Houston Lawyers’ Association v. Attorney General of Texas, in which the Supreme Court held that judicial elections are covered by the provisions of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
In 1993 she joined the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Law, where, in addition to teaching Civil Procedure and Constitutional Law, she continued to litigate and consult on a broad range of civil rights cases, while grooming the next generation of civil rights lawyers. She emerged as a highly regarded national civil rights strategist. Her critically acclaimed book, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, reflects her lifelong engagement in and analysis of issues of race and American public life.
“We [at the LDF] work incredibly hard at what we consider – each and every one of us – our life’s work.”
“This job that I now hold is filled with challenges. One of the great personal challenges for me is stewarding an organization that was headed by, and known for so many people by its leaders, going back to Thurgood Marshall,” she said.
Civil rights cases were “litigated at a time and in space in which there was no example of what they thought they could do with law. They created something extraordinary for this country.
“As Judge Bataillon said, this is the year that demands that we pay attention to civil rights history, and particularly to civil rights legal history. On May 10, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education; this year we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the 50th anniversary of the Freedom March.
“It’s no accident, and indeed an extraordinary opportunity, that we celebrate these three anniversaries in one year. These three milestones are deeply interconnected and they represent the trials of litigation and legislation and activism. They remind us that great change in this country is almost always the confluence of all three,” she said.
“It’s humbling to those of us who are litigators and for those of us who watch the courts for … evidence of seismic change, to remember this year that litigation, even great litigation like Brown, is only one tool; that legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that activism, sacrifice and even martyrdom, as in the deaths of the three civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerne … all of these elements together created the greatest and most powerful democratic triumph of the 20th Century.
“It would be remiss of me if I didn’t try to slow down a little bit the recitation of these historic milestones, and just talk about at least what two of them mean because I think it is powerful and important for us in terms of the challenges we face today.
“Let’s begin with the 60th anniversary of Brown. It was not just a Supreme Court decision of 1964 – it was the product of a 20-year strategy developed, litigated and ultimately won by lawyers of the Legal Defense Fund led by Thurgood Marshall.
“It began in 1935, with the challenge in state court – the first successful civil rights case of Marshall. That was the first chink in the armor that ultimately led to Brown.
“The Brown decision itself was huge – huge in ways that we probably have taken for granted and cannot fully appreciate today.
“[It was said that it was] the most important governmental act of any kind since the Emancipation Proclamation. I think this is really no exaggeration. The Court and Brown really changed the American landscape; declaring that separate but equal has no place in American lives; declaring that public education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments; and explaining that it’s doubtful that any child can reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity for an education.
“Each of these three statements taken separately is monumental. Together, they transformed this country.
“What that means for us and for me is, this country as we know it is less than 60 years old,” Ifill noted.
“For this reason, I am astonished when I hear people questioning this year the significance of Brown.
“I think we often forget how new we are to this equality thing. We’ve made great progress, but we understand that we still have a long way to go.”
She said it is important to build a careful record. She asked the judges to recognize the important education function of legislation … the presentation of evidence, witnesses, documents and historical material that allows skilled lawyers to educate the courts about “the ongoing reality of discrimination as it manifests itself in a society less than 60 years, but in some ways light years, removed from the society we lived in before Brown.
“It is distressing when judges, not in this Circuit of course, believe they know about discrimination. Some decry the courts, but they are the appropriate place to articulate civil rights.
“Please say the time has not come in these United States when an order of the federal court must be whittled away, watered down or shamefully withdrawn in the face of violent and unlawful acts of individual citizens in opposition thereto.”
It was in the Eighth Circuit, Ifill noted, in the case of Cooper v. Aaron, that the court led by Judge Marion Mathes, “firmly and powerfully turned back mob rule in Arkansas.” The opinion was later affirmed by the Supreme Court.
“Those six judges, led by Judge Mathes, opposed their chief, who issued the only dissent. They defied their community and popular opinion, and they saved this country from a descent into lawlessness.
“It is a decision that this Circuit should hold up as a badge of honor,” she declared.
“Civil rights work at its core is the work of democracy maintenance. We are raising questions of equality, due process, fairness – the core principles of our democracy. And every civil rights case has the potential to teach us something about the strength and vitality of our democracy. … Each case emanates from a question.
“It was important that the Court recognized that segregation harmed not only black children, but white children, imposing a distorted sense of reality on them. Civil rights has been regarded as an initiative to help black people. Rather, it is an urgently needed correction. We have perhaps lost the opportunity to understand how segregation and discrimination is a cancer that … threatens the very integrity of our democracy.
“Fifty years ago, we also lost the lives of three young men. They were killed 50 years ago because they believed the injustice in Mississippi was their problem. They tried. … They represent the best of young people of this country. Their short lives set a powerful example to all of us to respond as Americans to injustice anywhere within our borders.
“This year I have been encouraging all Americans who care about the integrity of our democracy to embrace civil rights work.” We need to recognize, she said, how far we’ve come in a short time – and how far we have to go.