Today, Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NAACP LDF), addressed New York University Law School’s 2014 graduates in a single ceremony at Madison Square Garden honoring both JDs and LLMs.
Ifill, who received her Juris Doctor degree from NYU Law School in 1987, noted that 2014 is a year filled with historical significance and special anniversaries in the world of civil rights, including the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and “Freedom Summer,” as well as the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education striking down legal segregation (a case litigated by NAACP LDF attorneys).
Here’s the full text of her speech:
May 22, 2014
Good morning. Let me begin by thanking Dean Morrison for this extraordinary opportunity. And by extending my greetings and thanks as well to President Sexton, and to the faculty and staff of the law school. Congratulations to David and Stephanie. What wonderful remarks! And of course my congratulations to you, the graduates of the class of 2014. What an extraordinary day!
This is most improbable. That I would be giving the convocation address at NYU Law School. Although I dreamed of being a civil rights lawyer from the time I was a little girl, I’d never met a lawyer until I arrived at NYU in the late summer of 1984. My first class, that August day, was Civil Procedure. With Professor Samuel Estreicher. He was talking about something called personal jurisdiction. I had NO idea what he was talking about. That day. Or the next. Or the one after that. Professor Estreicher was, how shall I say it, not a hand-holder. He was tough. Very tough and a little intimidating. We were about three weeks in when the day of revelation came and the civil procedure skies opened for me. It wasn’t even one of the big cases. It was a little case out of Illinois – Gray v. American Radiator. Without any warning and for no particular reason, the entire doctrine made sense to me. Fully, excitingly, made sense. My love affair with Procedure had begun – much to my shock and to the even greater shock of my friends – and I’ve now been teaching procedure for 20 years.
It’s intimidating I must say to stand before many of my former professors – men and women whose work, teaching and scholarship I have looked up to over the years – like Prof. Caldwell, Prof. Law and Prof. Hertz. NYU Law School has also been the home to some of the most brilliant, innovative LDF lawyers including Anthony Amsterdam and my mentor Derrick Bell. I am also thrilled to acknowledge the presence of 3 law school classmates who became my very best friends. Gemma Solimene, now a professor at Fordham Law School. Ricardo Castro, General Counsel of one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the world the Ford Foundation, and Maria Perez Brown, a trailblazing and highly successful entertainment lawyer and producer.
Now if I recall correctly from my own law school graduation 23 years ago, you are not at all interested in what I’m about to say. But I will press on anyway because no lawyer worth her salt gives up an opportunity to speak to a captive audience of other lawyers. And because there really is something I wish to share with you.
You are graduating in a year filled with historical significance and anniversaries. It is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. And it is the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In fact we celebrated Brown day just this past Friday and Saturday. As you know, Brown was the case litigated by lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and led by my predecessor, the first Director-Counsel of LDF Thurgood Marshall. I’m sure you’ve read and studied Brown in your Con Law class – I certainly hope you did because I think that so many of us, not just lawyers and law students, may fail to recognize how significant this really is. Brown was the most important constitutional moment of the 20th century. Louis Pollak, the former dean of Yale Law School, federal judge and great, great friend of the Legal Defense Fund did not exaggerate when he described Brown as “probably the most important governmental act of any kind since the Emancipation Proclamation.”
It’s important to understand what really happened on May 17, 1954. The Supreme Court outlawed segregation in education and in so doing articulated the full and equal citizenship of black people. The decision was a recognition that segregation had been maintained for the purpose of subordinating black people, for the purpose of denying blacks the full citizenship to which they were entitled with the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868. Brown was the beginning of the end of legal apartheid in this country, and the opening salvo to the Civil Rights Movement.
What that means for us sitting here today in all of our diversity, in all of our cosmopolitan sophistication, what that means is that this country as you and I have been privileged to know it, is less than 60 years old. As a society in which the principle of equality has true legal meaning, a society without a legally enforced racial caste system, we are less than 60 years old.
We must remember this, you must remember this — for two reasons. The first is that remembering this keeps us from becoming impatient and frustrated with our frequent national missteps and mistakes. We are still relatively new at this thing called equality. We are still feeling our way. America is, in essence, an equality teenager. And you remember how you were when you were a teenager. Given to outbursts of frustration and anger. Questioning and not fully appreciating the values that shaped you. Engaging in magical and grandiose thinking – believing that you could be successful without hard work. And underneath it all insecurity and fear of the future. This is America when it comes to race and equality. We are immature, but most assuredly growing up.
We should remember how new we are to this, because it helps us understand the contradictions we see around us every day. The relative newness of this post-Brown country explains why we can simultaneously have a black President and a Donald Sterling. It is not, as some have said, because we are going backward. It is precisely because we are going forward and because that way forward is new and unchartered territory for this country that our conflicts have arisen.
The second reason we must remember our relative youth as a nation free of legal apartheid, is because today I cannot release you. As much as I would like to release you to embark on a successful career in which you make a name for yourself and lots of money, I cannot release from your obligation to engage in the work of perfecting this democracy. It is just too soon.
As a lawyer, you are a leader. You are an officer of the court, but also a leader of our nation. You may not want to be a leader. You may not even deserve it. But this is the privilege and burden imposed on you when you become a lawyer. People will look to you for the answers. You will have knowledge and insights about the working of our government, our courts, and public policy that others do not have. You will know how to navigate complex systems. You will have friends and clients in both high and low places. You will be better equipped than the average American to make a difference. And you will make a difference. The question you must grapple with is what kind of difference do you want to make?
Now I don’t want to pressure you too much. You needn’t make that difference tomorrow. By all means, pass the bar exam first. And be sure that you do not overextend yourself in your early years. Work hard and learn your craft in whatever field of law you choose. But understand this. You are called to be a civil rights lawyer. Because civil rights work is the work of democracy maintenance. It is not work to be done only by black lawyers, or women lawyers or gay lawyers or even those of us who have committed ourselves to this practice full-time.
It is every lawyer’s obligation to engage in the hard, but necessary work of democracy maintenance. And you know how it is with maintenance. Sometimes you need to just do some sprucing up. Sometime you need to refurbish that which has grown shabby and worn. Sometimes you have to rip out whole sections and build anew. Sometimes you must go to the very foundations and reinforce them.
And I don’t think you need me to tell you that today, in America, we need to do some foundational work. When America has become a place where leaders in our country can be openly engaged in the effort to discourage or prevent other Americans from voting, and when the highest Court in our land removes the protections afforded voters, we need foundational work. When we have incarcerated 2million people, many for non-violent drug offenses, hollowing out communities and families, we need to do foundational work. When greed and predatory practices, collapse our economy and crush the dreams and financial stability of millions of Americans, we need to do some foundational work. When we become more and more segregated – and live in separate racial and economically stratified communities, we must do some foundational work. When a country of immigrants has relegated more than a million and a half young people who came to this country as children, to live in the shadows because they lack documentation, we must do foundational work. When there is still no federal law and no law in a majority of our states that prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, we have some foundational work to do.
So …. I am not asking all of you to join the Legal Defense Fund. Well, yes, some of you. (I will be taking resumes). But really, I mean that being a civil rights lawyer should infuse your conception of your professional self. I’m betting that it already does. Let’s be honest, it was LDF and lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg, and Constance Baker Motley who made it cool to be a lawyer. We pioneered the concept of the civil rights lawyer – the atty who for little pay, but with excellence, preparation, conviction and cool rattles our republic, holds up the mirror to our ideals, and speaks powerfully for those who are powerless. It’s not all myth. You can really be that. Do that.
Even if it’s not your job every day. Take seriously your obligation to do pro bono work. This is not an obligation that should feel like a burden. It is your democracy maintenance time, and we need you. Some of you may be discouraged by recent events involving confirmation hearings in Washington, D.C. You may be thinking: “maybe I shouldn’t represent defendants on death row. Maybe I shouldn’t represent Guantanamo detainees. Maybe I shouldn’t represent unpopular clients.” But the whole profession is imperiled when lawyers – who are at the top of the professional food chain — allow fear, and personal ambition to stand ahead of our obligation to vindicate the rights set out in the Constitution on behalf of our clients –whoever they may be.
And don’t be scared off. This will not be as hard as it seems. Many will tell you that you do not have the time do pro bono work. Or that doing that work won’t help you make partner. Some of you will be told that you can’t be a public interest lawyer and eat. I understand the press of student loan debt. As the youngest of 10 children, I could never have attended law school without serious student loans (thank you Margie Quinones – where are you?). But I have no regrets. Even though I didn’t finish paying off those loans until I was in my 40s, I had no regrets. Selling my brownstone in Brooklyn in the 90s? That I regret.
I’m always mindful that those who came before me had less and did more with what they had. I recall reading about how one of the architects of Brown and later a federal judge Robert Carter wrote to Thurgood Marshall about his assessment of the consolidated cases that made up Brown v. Board. He said with tremendous gravity, “I believe we could do the entire thing – all five of the cases for $3200. Now I know that’s a lot of money. But I think it will be worth it.” ]
These are false choices. Pro bono or partner. Motherhood or tenure. Women, I shouldn’t have to address special remarks to you, but I feel compelled to do so, because this week the First Lady of New York was criticized and called a “bad mother” because she gave a thoughtful magazine interview in which she admitted to deep ambivalence about leaving her career for motherhood after the birth of her first child.
I understood Chirline McCray’s candid explanation of her feelings in the first years of motherhood. I, after all, weaned my eldest daughter so that I could do my first argument in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. No regrets. Don’t recommend it. But no regrets. At the same time, there is no greater joy in my life, no moment when viscerally at the very center of me I am not thinking about and loving my 3 extraordinary and amazing daughters. A million sacrifices have been willingly and gladly made for them. Would my daughters be more extraordinary if they’d been nursed for a full year? It’s hard to imagine. But really, is this the level at which we are judging ourselves and being judged? And by the way, I killed at that argument. I still think it’s the best I’ve ever done.
This is why – with all due respect to Sheryl Sandberg and Arianna Huffington and Claire Shipman – and all of the other women (all of whom I greatly admire) who admonish us to “lean in” and “thrive” “sleep” “be confident”— I advise against listening to advice on how to “do” womanhood. Just do you. You’re a woman. You’re going to be criticized no matter what course you take.
Later this year you will take an oath to uphold the Constitution, the same oath that Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley and Derrick Bell did before you. These were great, pioneering civil rights lawyers. But when they took the oath to uphold the Constitution, they were not even considered equal citizens in the country of their birth. When Constance Baker Motley litigated school desegregation cases in the South one judge turned his chair and kept his back to her during her entire argument. The local newspaper referred to her as “that Motley woman.”
Even though the Constitution still did not work for them, they took seriously their obligation to uphold its terms and its spirit and to lead this country into its better self. We must do this too. You are not freed from this simply because you are a patent lawyer, or a family lawyer or a securities lawyer.
So my hope for all of you today is that you will become my partners – my colleagues in civil rights work. That you will infuse your practice in whatever field it might be, with the ethic of equality and of opportunity. That you will make time to do pro bono work. That you will be great criminal defense attys, prosecutors, academics. That you will support the work of those of us who have devoted our lives to doing this work full-time. That we will all work together as civil rights lawyers. That you will join that overflowing roster of NYU Law graduates who are recognized for their innovation, commitment, and leadership in making this great, but flawed democracy, better.
But all of this begins tomorrow. Today is a day of celebration. A day to thank your parents. To thank grandparents and spouses. A day to thank mentors and that special faculty member who inspired you. And a day to rejoice at this wonderful accomplishment that will usher you into this great community of lawyers. Congratulations and God bless you!