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Ifill delivers 47th annual King Commemoration keynote address

Sherrilyn Ifell delivers her Distinguished Speakers Series lecture.

Sherrilyn Ifill, civil rights attorney and former president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, delivers UB’s 47th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration keynote address in the Center for the Arts. Photo: Joe Cascio


Published February 17, 2023

“Our character is not defined by the good and easy times. It is defined by the hard and challenging times. ”
Sherrilyn Ifill, keynote speaker
Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration

At one point during Thursday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, moderator Aviva Abramovsky, dean of the School of Law, likened speaker Sherrilyn Ifill’s detailed analysis of race-based college admissions cases before the U.S. Supreme Court to a “master class.” The audience applauded in warm agreement.

Ifill had forensically examined the complex reasons why last October’s oral arguments concerning admissions policies at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University were deeply significant. Throughout her bracing address in the Center for the Arts, Ifill blended legal scholarship and U.S. history with her passion for civil rights and the rule of law during the annual King Commemoration, part of UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series.

Following an introduction by President Satish K. Tripathi, Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) from 2013 until last year, said she was “deeply honored” to be in Buffalo, especially “in such a challenging time” following Wednesday’s sentencing of Payton Gendron in the Tops mass shooting last May. She noted that while Martin Luther King Jr. is especially well-known for his “I have a dream” speech in 1963, Americans should also pay heed to King’s “Give us the ballot” address of 1957, in which he urged Congress and the president to fulfill the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education by ensuring voting rights for all Americans.

Too often, King’s legacy is reduced or over-simplified to “dreams” and his famous “content of character” quote, Ifill said, when, in fact, he was a fierce challenger of the status quo. Yet, his determination to enhance Americans’ character when it comes to racial justice is deeply relevant today. Citing Erie County Judge Susan Egan’s remarks during Gendron’s sentencing for killing 10 Buffalo citizens last May 14 because they were Black, she said: “Our character is not defined by the good and easy times. It is defined by the hard and challenging times. … This is the place where we will discover who we are. And as dispiriting as this moment is in terms of thinking about our progress toward becoming a multiracial democracy, where equality and dignity for all people within our borders is the coin of the realm. … it is only in these moments of challenge that we will have an opportunity to sharply define what we want our character to be.”

Even as rights accorded under the First and Second amendments are often invoked or asserted, Americans don’t sufficiently consider the impact and meaning of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, ratified in 1865, 1868 and 1870, respectively. These vital measures were “fundamentally reset,” she said, “by backlash from the Supreme Court, the inertia of Congress and mob violence” during Reconstruction and the decades that followed. Furthermore, she said, “entrenched racial segregation was a way of life for half a century.” Offering additional historic perspective, she described how “insane” it was in the context of the times that Thurgood Marshall, then a LDF civil rights attorney, fought to dismantle Jim Crow laws.

Ifill answers a question during the Distinguised Speakers Series event.

Sherrilyn Ifill answers a question from the audience after her talk. Photo: Joe Cascio

Asked if she would urge others to attend law school, Ifill said, “Absolutely!” She noted that no healthy democracy can remain so without the rule of law, and lawyers have a fundamental role in sustaining such societies. She discussed her own family history of growing up as the youngest of 10 children and attending public schools in New York City. She then enrolled in Vassar College, where she received her BA in English, and later earned a law degree from New York University. Ifill went on to serve as a fellow at the ACLU before joining the LDF as an assistant counsel. This was followed by a 20-year career teaching law at the University of Baltimore. She also ran a series of legal clinics in that city, including those devoted to helping ex-offenders reenter society, a task made very difficult by barriers to employment and disenfranchisement. Ifill is now a senior fellow with the Ford Foundation.

While the law “is an incredible tool,” Ifill said she is worried about the “dark place” in the legal profession, citing the increase in people being released after lengthy terms of unlawful imprisonment. “If you read the paper, or you are on your social media feed, you know that every week at least — maybe every two weeks — we read about someone who was finally released from prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Usually a Black man; he’s been in prison for 20 years. Cheering people are so excited outside the courthouses. Yes, congratulations, but this is an abomination!”

Although Ifill contends that we are living in “authoritarian” times, she does have optimism for the future, and encouraged those in attendance to exercise their citizenship more actively, even if just for a day, in attending a school board meeting, finding out the names of judicial candidates or helping someone to vote, for example.

“I’m an optimist because I’ve lived an improbable life, and I shouldn’t be in public life [but I am]. So why not? Why not believe?”

Rev. George Nicholas, pastor of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, offered reflections on King before Ifill’s address.

Honored during the ceremony were Celine DeCambre, senior psychology major and winner of the Martin Luther King Scholarship Award, and Tendaji Ya’Ukuu, a junior environmental design major and winner of the Jerry Linder Academic Achievement Award.