By Ashleigh Fields,
AFRO Assistant Editor,
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action in college admissions shattered fifty years of legal precedent, citing the policy as a violation of the 14th Amendment which provides “equal protection under the law.” As the nation reacted with outrage, Howard University announced plans to launch the 14th Amendment Center for Law and Democracy a week prior to the controversial ruling.
“It’s vital that we begin to understand the centrality of the 14th Amendment to post-Civil War America. I fear that far too many people in our country – far too many lawyers, and most Black people – simply don’t know how rich and visionary the 14th Amendment is, and how powerfully its provisions reflect a clear-eyed understanding of the ongoing threat of white supremacy to our democracy,” said Sherrilyn Ifill who will found the center as the inaugural Vernon E. Jordan endowed chair.
Ifill has a storied career as a civil rights litigator and has worked on landmark Voting Rights Act cases such as Houston Lawyers’ Association vs. Attorney General of Texas. Her most recent roles include serving on President Biden’s Commission on the Supreme Court and formerly as the Legal Defense Fund’s (LDF) seventh president since Thurgood Marshall founded the organization in 1940.
“I’ve always been guided by the images and stories of the men and women who did this work in the past. Justice Marshall was sui generis. I’ve been circling his life from my early days as a litigator at LDF, to my decision to move to Baltimore, to the 20 years I spent teaching at the first law school he successfully sued to desegregate – the University of Maryland Law School, to finally become the seventh President and Director-Counsel of LDF,” Ifill told the AFRO. “He’s been kind of my North Star, guiding me.”
Ifill established a personal connection with Vernon E. Jordan while working at LDF where she heard treasured stories of his experiences at Howard University.
“We called him ‘Uncle Vernon’ at LDF. To walk into a room with Vernon was to experience for a moment what it must be like to be on the arm of royalty,” said Ifill. “I am so honored and excited to walk in the legacy of both Justice Marshall and Mr. Jordan.”
As the Vernon E. Jordan endowed chair, Ifill will support Howard’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center in recruitment, teaching and research in addition to collaborating with the Charles Hamilton Houston Center at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Radcliffe Institute to successfully found the 14th Amendment multidisciplinary center.
“The launch of this Center comes at a moment of truth for our country’s pursuit of a genuinely multiracial democracy – and of the promise of the 14th Amendment,” said Zinelle October, American Constitution Society’s (ACS) executive vice president.
Ifill was presented the 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award at ACS’s national convention in D.C. this past May.
“Howard could not have chosen a more distinguished or generation-defining civil rights leader. Throughout her career, Sherrilyn has been at the forefront of vindicating civil rights in this country,” said ACS President Russ Feingold. “At such a decisive moment for this country, we are ecstatic that Sherrilyn will remain on the frontlines of civil rights in this distinguished position.”
Before joining the ranks at Howard, Ifill will teach as a Distinguished Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School this fall where she will lead a 14th Amendment seminar.
“One thing I hope my students will see is how you can make a lifelong commitment to this work. And that they will see the joy in the work, not just the challenges,” said Ifill. “There is nothing better than bringing your heart, your intellect, your experience and your determination to doing the work of justice and equality for your people. It is a powerful centering force for me that allows me to remain resilient and positive in this work.”