In January 2013, Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill will become the seventh president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She recently inherited the position, which was left vacant in March by the untimely death of her predecessor, John Payton, a brilliant courtroom strategist who led the LDF in resounding legal victories.

Ifill’s appointment is a signature achievement in an already storied career—she is a respected civil rights litigator who has specialized in voting rights and political participation; acclaimed author of “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century;” an innovative and dedicated academician; and a respected public intellectual who often offers commentary on current affairs.

But she has big shoes to fill and a daunting task to fulfill in leading the nation’s first and foremost civil and human rights law firm, which was founded in 1940 under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall.

In an AFRO interview, Ifill discussed her feelings about her new job, her role and her vision for the organization.

What does this appointment mean for you professionally and personally? And what do you feel as you walk in the shoes of the likes of John Payton and take on the responsibility of leading such a revered organization?
It’s a privilege and an enormous responsibility to take the helm of the Legal Defense Fund. I never think about trying to “walk in the shoes” of a Thurgood Marshall or an Elaine Jones. Those shoes are too big for me to fill. I think instead about maintaining the standards they set: of courage, of excellence, of commitment, of speaking truth to power.

LDF is a great American institution. Notice I said, American institution, not just African American. Because, although LDF is a great African American institution, it’s important for people to recognize LDF’s contribution to this country. LDF lawyers literally changed this country for the better.

Was this a position that you courted or how did this come about?
This was a position I very reluctantly sought. I have been very fulfilled in my life as a law school professor, as a writer, and more recently as the chair of the board of a major philanthropic foundation. It was difficult to imagine leaving that life. Moreover, I knew that serving as LDF President and Director-Counsel would be a huge life-changing challenge.

How will it affect your other work—will you continue to teach, etc?
I am on leave from the university. I do hope to return one day. I absolutely love teaching, and really love the experience of interacting with students. I’ve taught so many great young people over the years. I really do believe that University of Maryland Law School has the best students of any school. Smart, compassionate, ethical, and with a real-world sensibility that keeps our feet on the ground.

What exactly is your role?
The Director-Counsel is a kind of iconic position within LDF. The responsibilities are broad. Obviously, overseeing our legal program, supporting and managing our staff of amazing lawyers. Raising funds to keep this organization going is an essential part of the job. I want people who believe in justice and equality to understand why they should — must — support the Legal Defense Fund. Most important is leading with a strong strategic vision for what LDF can and should accomplish for African Americans at this moment in time. I view a key part of my job to be serving as a spokesperson for civil rights law in America.

Do you think that as the second woman president of LDF that you bring something different to this position?
It matters that I’m a woman holding this position. Elaine Jones was the pioneer and I find myself looking to her example and to that of other woman heads of major organizations. There are definitely challenges involved in being a woman at this level. I like to think that today there are also advantages. The trick is being able to recognize both.

What are some of the main areas that the LDF will be focusing on under your aegis?
LDF has to work vigorously in those areas where the most difficult barriers to equality exist. Obviously we have always worked in the areas of voting rights and criminal justice. Access to quality education is among the most important issues facing African American families. I regard ongoing barriers to economic advancement for African Americans as a key focus of our work going forward.

Are there any different approaches or untapped advocacy opportunities that you would like to see the LDF take on?
I’d like LDF to spend more time engaged deeply at the local level — particularly in the South. We have strong connections with so many communities where the barriers to African American advancement are almost taken as a fact of life. I’d like to see us use those connections to expose and dismantle those barriers.

How would you define the role of the LDF in this modern era?
The challenge for LDF is to become a fully engaged 21st century civil rights law organization. That means looking beyond just litigation. LDF must be in a position to shape the terms of the debate that this nation is having about race and civil rights. That means that public policy, intellectual exchange and engagement, must be a central part of our work. We have to support our litigation and legal representation, by framing the contours of the public debate about civil rights.

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Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO