Sherrilyn Ifill

2020 Choral Arts Humanitarian Award Recipient

Transcript from Sherrilyn Ifill’s speech at Living the Dream…Singing the Dream, the 32nd Annual Choral Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Sunday, January 26, 2020 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Marian Wright Edelman

This is my favorite thing to do each year, and that’s no exaggeration. I didn’t know about the first anniversary. Dorothy Height called me up and she said, “Where are you?”

I said, “What do you mean? I’m at home.”

She said, “Get your clothes on and come down here!” And I have not missed a year since then. This is the most nourishing experience to share at the beginning of the year — for us to keep making sure we change our history into a history of hope and equality and equal justice.

So, I am delighted to be here and to celebrate somebody that I have enormous respect for, but I want to just begin by honoring some individuals who reflect Dr. King’s spirit of reconciliation, peace, brother and sisterhood with the Annual Humanitarian Award, beginning in 2004. Some of the previous awardees I want to call out, and I hope my hero, John Lewis, is here tonight, but if he isn’t, we want to just call him out as a former awardee. Keep him in your prayers for full healing. We need his moral voice now more than ever.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagan, Reverend C.T. Vivian, Dr. Ysaÿe Barnwell, the great Bryan Stevenson, Ruby Bridges, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, and the Reverend Dr. Elbert Ransom. I’m also reminded of previous awardees who have passed away, but whose work lives on. I didn’t know about this first concert, and I got a call from Dr. Dorothy Height, I called her boss lady, and she called and said, “Where are you?”

And I said, “What do you mean? Where am I?”

[She said] “You get down here!”

I said, “Get down where?”

And she told me about this concert, and I have not missed one since then. It’s been the greatest gift, and I just want to thank everybody who puts it on and everybody who supports it. I don’t know what I’d do without Dr. King’s spirit guiding me at the beginning of each year, and we’d be better be doing what he says we should be doing. I love to think of the people who’ve gone before us, including: Dr. Height, Harris Wofford, Julian Bond, John Doar, President Nelson Mandela, the Choral Arts founder, Norman Scribner, who conceived this tribute to Dr. King in 1969, and I don’t think that anything, as he said, “surpasses the power of music to knit us together-our differences and to heal our wounds and inspire our spirits.” And I am just overjoyed to be here tonight as we celebrate the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who took me in as a legal intern and paid my way to Mississippi for three years and helped support us, and is the premier civil rights legal organization for equal justice under the law and particularly for all of the citizens of color and who are different. Sherrilyn Ifill is an extraordinarily wonderful voice in the struggle for racial justice and equality. Under her leadership, Legal Defense Fund has intensified its litigation: challenging voter suppression, racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, and housing discrimination, and has taken a strong leadership role in resisting federal efforts to roll back civil rights gains and every other kind of gain, including our affirmative action, employment discrimination, and school discipline policies. And the bottom line is that everybody in this audience ought to just say, “We’re never going to go back again, and we’re not going to go backwards.”

And Sherrilyn, I don’t want my children and grandchildren, your children and grandchildren, and their children having to fight these battles all over again. So, let’s just stand up to these people and say, “We’re not going backwards. We’re going to move forward because our children deserve our voice and our votes and our leadership.”

Sherrilyn is a scholar, a teacher, an author, and a pioneer in so many areas, and in recognition of the value she embodies — the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences and an extraordinary intellect. I am just deeply honored to been asked to present tonight’s Humanitarian Award to my dear friend and LDF Legal Defense Fund head, that gave me the Children’s Defense Fund.

Really the Legal Defense Fund spawned the Children’s Defense Fund, and it’s spawned many other defense funds around. And I’m just so grateful to the legacy of Charlie Houston and Thurgood Marshall and many others who took us in as legal interns. I didn’t know how I was going to eat. I was going to go to Mississippi one way or the other because the Lord would feed me. So, they walked in, and they fed me. It’s an extraordinary organization, and she’s an extraordinary leader, and I am just delighted to present her with this extraordinary award. Sherrilyn!


So please excuse me, I have to do that [takes pictures of audience] because I’m not an artist, and the likelihood that I will be on the stage at the Kennedy Center again in my life is quite slim.

Wow. So, first of all, let me just say thank you to the Choral Arts Society of Washington and Washington Performing Arts and in particular, just the incredible artists who are with us tonight who are lifting us up: the Artistic Director of the Choral Arts Society, Scott Tucker; Michelle Fowlin, the Artistic Director of the Children of the Gospel Choir; Theodore Thorpe III, Artistic Director of Men and Women of the Gospel Choir; Stanley Thurston, Artistic Director Emeritus; and Tad Czyzewski, the Executive Director of Choral Arts Society of Washington. And just to tell you how truly honored I am to be standing before you today and to be receiving this award. Especially given the list of illustrious individuals who have received this award in the past, who include people who are truly my heroes; CT Vivian and Ysaÿe Barnwell and the great Marian Wright Edelman and my buddy Brian Stevenson and so many others, who have made extraordinary contributions to this country and to the principles of equality and justice and truth that I know we all hold so dear, and that Dr. Martin Luther King gave his life for.

I want to say a word about Marian Wright Edelman in thanks to her for that extraordinary introduction. And just to say that we are so blessed to have with us someone who has this arc of work. She talked just at the end, very casually, about Mississippi. Marian Wright Edelman opened the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s office in Mississippi in the early 1960s and began her work addressing the needs of poor families and poor children and then created the Children’s Defense Fund. And so, young women like me who saw her doing that work, I was able to see before me those people who I wanted to become, and we stand on her shoulders.

But unlike some who do the work for a brief period of time, this is a life’s work for Marian Wright Edelman. And so, she has shown me how to begin this work as a young woman with stars in your eyes and how to lean into the work and be a true servant leader. And then, how to pay it forward and birth many other young people, men and women, who will be around to do this work. And so, I just want you to give another round of applause for Dr. Marian Wright Edelman.

So, I have attended this event before. My sister, Dr. Darlene Ifill Taylor, has sung in this event, under the direction of Stanley Thurston, who’s an amazing Artistic Director and visionary. And, I’ve been here for the performance, and so I just can’t wait until I’m sitting back in my seat, and I can just like really enjoy this. But I do want to say a few words to you that I think are important because we are at an important moment in our country, and it would be remiss of me not to speak the truth.

We’re in a perilous moment in this country. I simply can’t stand before you and pretend that that is not so. It’s a moment in which the principles that we hold most dear and that we think of as being synonymous with the vision of this country are being challenged in every way. And it’s in some ways a discouraging time, a frightening time, an uncertain time. But you know, I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer from the time I was a little girl, and you know, I used to see these old black and white films on TV with my dad, and I used to think, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I missed it. I missed the civil rights movement. This was for me.”

Be careful what you wish for, because when you decide that you’re going to devote your life to the work of equality and justice and to be a civil rights lawyer, this is what you sign up for. You don’t become a civil rights lawyer because you think there’ll be good times. You become a civil rights lawyer because you know there’ll be tough times. And all of us who are sitting here today who look so lovely in this beautiful place are beneficiaries of the work of people who came before us.

And these people lived in tough times. The founder of the organization I lead, Thurgood Marshall, fell under the tutelage of the great Charles Hamilton Houston at Howard Law School, who believed that lawyers must become social engineers. And they built this organization. This is our 80th anniversary, so we began in 1940 with just the two of them, Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, and built out this organization that literally transformed and re-navigated the trajectory of American democracy.

Now, how did they do this? Did they do this because they had a giant endowment of money? No. I’ve seen the letters. I’ve seen the letters in which, you know, Thurgood is writing to the publisher of the Afro Newspaper in Baltimore saying, “You know, we’d just take $15 if we could file this case, could you send it?” So, it wasn’t the money. Did they have a blueprint? Was there some plan that they had inherited for how they would break the back of Jim Crow, which was their goal? Was there another country somewhere in the world where there was a thriving, multi-racial constitutional democracy?

Were they, themselves, people of privilege? No. None of those things were true. There was no blueprint. They made it up. They pulled deep into themselves, and they read the founding instruments of this country, and they determined that they would hold this country to its words, and they created a blueprint.

And while they were creating that blueprint, they were victims of the very inequality that they were seeking to end. When Thurgood Marshall was in Oklahoma, trying the case that led to the desegregation of the University of Oklahoma Law School, he and his client, Ada Sipuel [Fisher] went to trial, to court, the first day. And at the end of the first day they were packing up their things and they were very hungry, and they were hungry because it had not occurred to them that they would not be able to eat in the cafeteria of the courthouse where they were litigating that case. But they won that case, and they kept winning that case until they won it in the United States Supreme Court, and that became one of the critical cases in 1948 on the road to Brown vs Board of Education. So, even as they were working through the plan, they, themselves, were victims of the inequality that they were trying to address.

I share that with you today because to the extent any of you are discouraged, I want to ask you to stop it. I want to ask you to put it to the side. I want to ask you to summon from within yourself a fraction of the courage of those men and women. Sometimes we talk in our office about being a woman lawyer. LDF is now a woman-led organization, and I think actually our director of policy is here- she’s a woman too, and so she’s in the halls of Congress fighting for equality and justice. But neither of us have had the experience of Constance Baker Motley, that pioneering young woman attorney at LDF, who filed and litigated most of the cases that desegregated the nation’s universities in the South. She had to have her partner, her local counsel, negotiate with attorneys from the other side to figure out what she would be called in the courtroom, so she wouldn’t be called by her first name. She tried cases before judges, who whenever she spoke would turn their chair and put their back to her, and in newspaper accounts, she was referred to as “that Motley woman”.

So, what these people endured with no blueprint, no guarantee of success, no fantastic Supreme Court at the time, and themselves undergoing this, is extraordinary. And so, if we in this moment who have the ability to sit here in this oasis for a few hours and restore our spirits could do something for this country, it would be to reach inside ourselves and to summon a fraction of that courage, a fraction of that bravery, a fraction of that determination to remember the sacrifices that were made so that you could sit in this room today, all of you, and to purpose in your mind that what your grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will do, they will be able to do because of the courage that you were able to summon to try and save this democracy.

Now by “save the democracy”, I don’t mean “put it back like it was” because we didn’t run into this trouble recently. What we are seeing is the manifestation of the work that remained undone. Martin Luther King talked about forcing the tension to the surface, and what you are seeing now is the tension in our country surfaced.

When Barack Obama was president, we had a full docket of cases in our office: voter suppression, police killing of unarmed African Americans, housing discrimination, employment discrimination, education inequity. That was not created recently, but now it’s been forced to the surface and we have to confront it. And what that means is that this is the beginning of transformation. Once it’s surfaced and you can see it and get your hands around it, then you can fight it. And so, rather than be discouraged, we should see this as the moment in which precisely what we knew lay beneath the surface, beneath the veneer of civility, has been released.

I’m not saying it’s fun. I’m not saying it’s not distressing, but what I’m saying is that we can handle it, and we have before us the example of extraordinary individuals who showed us the way to do it, who showed us how to have the courage. So lastly, I want to say a word about music and about the importance of this particular evening because I have been—I was sharing with the team here—I have been immersing myself in art over the last few years as my form of spiritual renewal. We need this. We need to come together. We need to have our voices be one to remind us that we are one.

And we need to have these moments where we come together and support the arts. Not because the arts will help us do math better or be better at business, but because the arts feed our spirit. They bind us one to another. They help us see the future. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote eloquently about what it meant to him to hear young people sing the song “We Shall Overcome”. He said, “these young people were singing about a future they had not yet seen.” The words are “we shall overcome someday”, and the power of the “someday” is the fuel for the work today. So, I’m asking each of you, I do this work, the work of civil rights lawyering every day, this is my job. I know it’s not your job. But I’m asking you, every day, to do something, even if it’s just to educate yourself about something you don’t know, to do the work of someday. To do the work in which you seed and plant into the future of this country as it was done for you. It is what we owe. And I’m so happy to be here tonight, to be able to spend some time restoring my spirit with all of you, so happy that voices are knit together as one, and that I have some peace from the cacophony of conflicting voices that are part of my everyday life and so proud to be receiving this extraordinary award and grateful to all of you for being here. Thank you so much.