(Samantha Pokorny/The Tufts Daily)
By Wevhu Tokwe
The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life closed its 2022 Solomont Lecture Series on Nov. 9 with a lecture by Sherrilyn Ifill, a prominent civil rights advocate. Ifill gave an overview of the state of American democracy and spoke of the urgent need to fight for it.
Ifill is the former president and director-attorney of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she has argued different civil rights causes, including voter suppression and racial discrimination. She taught at the University of Maryland Law School for 20 years and instituted a series of law clinics that not only served students practicing law, but also facilitated the rehabilitation of ex-offenders. In 2021, she was appointed to President Biden’s commission to the Supreme Court.
Ifill began by sharing his impressions of the work done by Tisch College, noting that it overlaps well with his professional work.
“It’s very hard for me to turn down an opportunity to talk about a subject that means so much to me and is truly my life’s work,” said Ifill. “That’s basically the name of my speech – ‘the struggle for democracy.’ So I was delighted to hear that you are all grappling with and engaging with the issues that I think not only do we face, but that we are compelled and compelled to grapple with right now in this country .
Describing America as a “teenage democracy,” Ifill noted the nation’s history and the qualities that kept it from being truly democratic until recently. In particular, Ifill referred to the fact that many African Americans and other racial minorities were barred from voting until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, leaving a significant portion of the American population outside of its representative government.
“If you have teenagers, or were a teenager, you know what it’s like,” Ifill said. “I think we have some growing pains…I think we just started this process of trying to be who we claimed to be, but who we really weren’t before 1965.”
Ifill went on to discuss some contemporary social difficulties that reflect the insufficiency of national democracy.
“You know your democracy is in trouble because thousands of people are storming your capital and threatening to hang the vice president,” Ifill said, referring to the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol building. . “Is he in trouble if the leader of your country does not commit to a peaceful transfer of power?”
She also criticized some current attempts to fix democracy, noting that supporters of a democratic nation should speak with those with whom the current political precedent fails.
“You have to engage with people who interact with democracy in ways that expose the weaknesses of the foundation,” she said. “So if I want to know if democracy is healthy, I’m not talking to the most successful person. I’m not talking to the television pundit America worked for.
Ifill noted that despite their pro-democracy work, activists are often vilified and viewed as people with personal missions.
“If we were seen as workers of democracy, rather than as [people of] special interests working on their own agenda, the information we have, from the perspective of the communities of people we represent, would help people understand how our democracy is deeply flawed,” she said.
Ifill’s book, “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” offers a basis for conversations about reconciliation and healing from racial trauma. His next book “Is This America?” is inspired by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, a former Mississippi-based sharecropper who was a key figure in the suffrage movement.
“She was allowed to speak [at the 1964 Democratic Convention]“Ifill said. “And she spoke with incredible power…the rhetorical flourish she used was ‘Is this America? I question America.
Dayna Cunningham, Dean of Tisch College, then sat down with Ifill to ask some additional questions about the state of modern democracy. Cunningham asked about Ifill’s identity as a black woman and how that played into her work.
“That sensibility of both acknowledging that we are a teenage democracy and being excited about the possibilities is another element of black sensibility which is black joy and black hope,” she asked. “How has this influenced your career path and in your work? »
In response to Dean Cunningham’s question, Ifill discussed an essay she had recently written regarding the impact former black leaders had on her personal experience.
“They were working on this thing day and night, ruining their health, traveling and risking their lives, often,” Ifill said. “It was about black people who risked everything for something they couldn’t even see and had no guarantee of working for. And that’s so powerful for me.
Ifill then heard questions from the audience.
An audience member asked Ifill: “[Regarding] the narrative of sitting back and talking about what’s going on – how can we change that to start putting action plans in place? »
In response, Ifill explained the importance of voting and informed voting in a democracy, also noting the need for Americans to engage directly with their elected officials and the community around them.
Concluding the discussion, Ifill highlighted how urgent the fight for democracy has become and the need for everyone to participate.
“I hope we feel that urgency and I hope we have the courage of the people who came before us and made our lives possible,” she said.