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LDF 34th National Equal Justice Awards Dinner - Inside

Sherrilyn Ifill accepts the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award onstage during the LDF 34th National Equal Justice Awards Dinner on May 10, 2022, in New York City. | Source: Bennett Raglin / Getty

Civil rights lawyer and scholar Sherrilyn Ifill speaks on the ongoing fight for civil rights on Small Doses with Amanda Seales. Over this incredible two-part episode, Ifill provides a detailed look at the current evolution of the civil rights movement. She explains why voting matters—”despair is not an option”—and how ordinary people can resist attempts by the Far Right to dismantle hard-won progress.

Defining civil rights

Ifill defines civil rights as the cornerstone of first-class citizenship. “The kinds of things that allow you to participate as a citizen are civil rights,” she tells Seales. “They’re critically important because otherwise you are a citizen in name only. So that bundle of rights and our definition of it—which expands and contracts depending on where we are—is what we think of as our civil rights.”

Why voting matters

Throughout her illustrious career spanning more than three decades, Ifill has been at the frontlines of civil rights litigation. As the former president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, she has tirelessly championed the cause of equality and justice.

Looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election, Ifill underscores the critical importance of voting as a fundamental tool for effecting change—no matter how uninspired voters may feel.

“We have to get serious about this thing,” Ifill says. “As Black people, there’s no tool that we can set to the side and say ‘I’m not going to use that one.’ So saying you’re not going to vote at all, to me, is a fool’s errand. I mean, we don’t have that many tools. (Voting) happens to be one of them.”

“We don’t have the luxury of leaving power on the table.”

Reimagining this democracy

As a lawyer who sees firsthand the Far Right’s subversive attacks on civil rights, Ifill’s insight reignites the importance of civic engagement. While empathizing with disillusioned voters, she rejects complacency in the face of systemic challenges.

“I’m not here singing the praises of American democracy as though I haven’t been a civil rights lawyer for 30 years. We have been an unhealthy democracy with many flaws. But if you think that is the same as living in an authoritarian regime, you are sadly mistaken,” she affirms.

“I believe at this time, given the rise of authoritarianism, fascism, hate groups and explicit old fashioned anti-Black racism, we have to be refreshed and renewed in how we approach our engagement with this country,” Ifill says.

“It is time for us to reimagine this entire democracy so that it works for us.”

Get the full conversation with lawyer and scholar Sherrilyn Ifill on this episode of Small Doses: Side Effects of Civil Rights.

Listen to Part 1

Listen to Part 2


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