Sherrilyn Ifill — “Leave No Power on the Table” in the Fight for Racial Justice

sherrilyn ifill learn to learn with laura

Laura Marti – February 23, 2023

Sherrilyn Ifill is a prominent civil rights lawyer, legal scholar, and activist who dedicated her career to advancing racial justice and equality. She served as the seventh President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), one of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations, from 2013 to 2022, and currently serves as President and Director-Counsel Emeritus.

Sherrilyn Ifill was born on December 7, 1962, in New York City. Her parents were both civil rights activists, and her mother was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Growing up in a family that was committed to social justice, Ifill learned early on about the importance of fighting for equality and fairness.

Ifill earned her undergraduate degree from Vassar College in 1984, and her law degree from New York University School of Law in 1987. After law school, she worked as an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she represented clients in cases involving employment discrimination, voting rights, and other civil rights issues.

In 1993, Ifill joined the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Law. Over 20 years, Ifill taught courses on civil procedure, professional responsibility, and race and American law to thousands of law students, and pioneered a series of law clinics. During her time at the law school, Ifill also served as the director of the Thurgood Marshall Law Library. In addition, she is a prolific scholar who has published academic articles in leading law journals, and op-eds and commentaries in leading newspapers. Her 2007 book On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, was highly acclaimed, and is credited with laying the foundation for contemporary conversations about lynching and reconciliation.

On the courthouse lawn

Revised edition published in 2018 by Beacon House. A new foreword from Bryan Stevenson, after the creation of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. | Amazon

In 2013, Ifill was invited back to the Legal Defense Fund – this time to lead the organization as its 7th Director-Counsel. After assuming her position at the LDF, Ifill described her vision for the work: “I want to play offense, and my focus is on those who are the most marginalized—at the intersections of race and class, and race and poverty.” 

“When I returned to lead LDF I was determined that our work would demonstrate that LDF is an institution that is critical,” Ifill told Black Enterprise. “Not only to ensure the protection and constitutional rights of Black people but for the integrity and strengthening of American democracy.” While at LDF, Ifill also endeavored to give gender equity and intersectionality a significant focus in the fight for racial justice and education access. “All of our work affects Black women and girls,” she said to Time Magazine. 

Ifill impressively grew LDF five times the size it was in staff, in budget, and in endowment. She cemented it as an essential player in battles over voter suppression, inequity in education, economic disparities, and racial discrimination in the criminal legal system – hoping to ensure the 81-year-old organization remains as influential in this century as it was in the last.

One of Ifill’s most notable achievements was her role in the landmark voting rights case Shelby County v. Holder. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required certain states with a history of voting discrimination to obtain federal approval before making changes to their voting laws. Ifill and the LDF played a central role in defending the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County case, arguing that the law was still necessary to prevent discrimination against minority voters.

Ifill was involved in a number of other organizations dedicated to social justice. She served on the board of directors for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the United Way of New York City, among others. She is also a member of the American Law Institute and the American Bar Association.

Sherrilyn Ifil, CBS 60 Minutes Interview after the death of George Floyd

Sherrilyn Ifil, CBS 60 Minutes Interview after the death of George Floyd | 60 Minutes, YouTube | June 2020

Ifill has also been a frequent commentator on issues related to race and the law. She has appeared on numerous television programs, and has been quoted in major newspapers and magazines.

Ifill has received many honors and awards for her work in the field of civil rights. In 2015, she was awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. In 2016, she received the Harvard Law School Association Award for her work in public interest law. And in 2017, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. In 2021, she was named to President Biden’s Commission on the Supreme Court. In January 2022, she was named as a possible candidate to replace Justice Stephen Breyer on the U.S. Supreme Court. She joined the Ford Foundation as a Senior Fellow in June 2022.

In 2020, Sherrilyn Ifill was named one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year. The author said this about her:

“A four-star general in the war to protect voting, she deploys legal foot soldiers across the country to ensure you can cast a ballot free from intimidation, misinformation, or unfair rules. She pulls no punches targeting biased laws and leaders in national media. Her sense of justice does not waver; it is her inheritance.”

Sherrilyn Ifill’s dedication to social justice and civil rights has inspired many to join the fight for equality and fairness. She has powerfully influenced the dialogue about racial justice in the U.S., and her legacy will continue to inspire future generations to fight for a better world.

Sherrylin Ifill quote leave no power on the table


Sherrilyn Ifill – Strategically Confronting Injustice | The Daily Show | January 2023

Sherrilyn Ifill: Leave No Power on the Table | Legal Defense Fund | March 2022

Sherrilyn Ifill on today’s Black codes | 60 Minutes Overtime | June 2020 

Sherrylin Ifill on The Daily Show January 2023

Sherrilyn Ifill on The Daily Show January 2023


Why Sherrilyn Ifill Fights for Gender Equity in Civil Rights Battles | Time Magazine | 2022

Sherrilyn Ifill, Civil Rights Superhero | Glamour | October 2020

NAACP LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill Will Step Down | Black Enterprise | 2021

On the Courthouse Lawn, Revised Edition: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century | Amazon | Beacon House | 2018

Sherrilyn Ifill | LDF President and Director Counsel | Legal Defense Fund website 

Laura Martí

Laura Martí is Content Creator and Resource Curator for Brownicity. Trained as a microbiologist and currently a wife and mother of four, she has been on an antiracism journey since the death of Trayvon Martin. She shares from her own learning with the goal of educating others and lifting up the dignity of every person.