Civil Rights Lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill: ‘America Is a Teenage Democracy’

The activist and former NAACP Legal Defense Fund president discussed the country’s growing pains as it works to secure voting rights for all 

As activist and civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill sees it, it was only after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the United States became a true democracy, despite declarations to the contrary. 

“I think we’re a teenage democracy,” Ifill told a Tufts audience on the Medford/Somerville campus November 9. “If you have teenagers, you know what it’s like. You have moments and days where you seem incredibly mature and wonderful. And then other ones where you can throw a tantrum.” 

She added: “When people say, ‘Enough, America. We should have it together by now,’ I don’t feel that way. I think we’ve just started to begin this process of trying to be who we claimed we were but who we really were not prior to 1965. That framing for me is important.” 

One of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2021, Ifill stepped down as president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund earlier this year. Here are four takeaways from the event, part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life Solomont Speakers Series: 

The fight for free elections is nonpartisan. 

“There’s a difference between Democrats and democracy. Democrats are a party, as are Republicans, and neither one is equated with the concept of democracy,” said Ifill, who has litigated against leaders from both sides in states reported to discriminate at the polls. 

“One of the reasons that Americans have not been educated about the need to press the panic button on voter suppression is because it’s presented to them as a partisan issue …The shorthand for the mainstream media is to funnel the idea and conception of voting rights through the lens of partisan politics, rather than the truth of what the American public needs to understand about how we protect our democracy.” 

The health of a democracy is determined by those it has disenfranchised. 

Ideally, Ifill said, the U.S. would measure the strength of its election process by the number of people who have been routinely shut out of it. “You have to engage with people who are interacting with the democracy in such a way that it reveals the weaknesses, the cracks in the foundation.” 

“If I want to know if a democracy is healthy, I don’t talk to the most successful person, the pundit on television for whom America has worked out. Part of the allure and passion for me being a civil rights lawyer is that through your clients, you have a lens on America that is very rarely the center of the conversation.” 

Media too often ignore the racism inherent in voter suppression. 

Referring to a 2013 North Carolina elections bill that toughened voter ID requirements and limited early voting, Ifill said, “An entire state legislature meeting to determine, with surgical precision, which voter suppression measures would most affect the Black community—that’s white supremacy.” 

The former law professor then gave a more recent example: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ re-election in the 2022 midterms. “When Governor DeSantis was standing on the stage last night, it wasn’t just about him winning. We should remember that this is someone who took redistricting into his own hands, in such a way as to lose majority Black seats.” 

“If you’re not presenting it that way, if you’re presenting it as just Republican DeSantis doing something for Republicans, then people turn off because it’s like, ‘Oh, partisan politics. They all do it, both sides.’ When you bury the lead, and you don’t talk about the racism of it, it’s a problem.” 

A model for success exists. 

The triumphs of civil rights attorneys past are what give Ifill hope for a fairer future. “These people had no blueprint,” she said. “They were, out of their own deep fealty to the Constitution and to the principle of equality, working on this thing day and night, ruining their health, traveling and often risking their lives, as were the clients who lived in these communities. These were Black people who risked it all for something they couldn’t see and that they had no guarantee would work.” 

“And that’s so powerful to me ... And we have a little bit of a blueprint, because they did have some success, right?” said Ifill, scanning the crowd. “Which is why this room looks like this. So we should really be encouraged that change can happen.” 

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