Assembly Series speaker addresses civil rights, Ferguson implications
In Wednesday’s Assembly Series event, speaker Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., suggested that Mike Brown’s death on Aug. 9 unveiled a decades-old problem with continuing racial tensions.
Ifill’s speech was planned before Brown was shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, but she incorporated the shooting and ensuing protests into her speech about civil rights.
Along with the events in Ferguson, Ifill addressed Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that mandated the desegregation of public schools, and the progress of the civil rights movement since that decision, passed down 60 years ago in May.
Professor of law Kimberly Norwood, who asked Ifill to speak, explains that Ifill decided to adapt her speech to discuss Ferguson and its implications, but felt that the core of her speech remained the same.
“The events that have unfolded in Ferguson over the last month powerfully demonstrate the unfinished business of Brown [v. Board of Education]. In fact, the killing of Mike Brown and subsequent events all pull together the seemingly disparate strings that, taken together, reveal the tangle of ongoing white supremacy, the economic dislocation and a profound almost mind-numbing failure of political representation that stands as a warning sign that we ignore at our peril,” Ifill said.
“I asked [Ifill] if she thought it would be possible [to talk about Ferguson], if it would change the tone too much—but she said no, she thought that the Ferguson incident would fit perfectly into her main message, which she hopes will focus on the unfinished business of civil rights in America,” Norwood said.
Ifill discussed the seeming contradiction between celebrating the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, a milestone for civil rights, and mourning now, in 2014, the brutal killing of an unarmed black teenager.
“How to reconcile these two things, Brown and Brown?” Ifill asked the audience.
“The America that you and I have been privileged to know is less than 60 years old. And this is significant for us today—especially today, as we’re still reeling from the events this past month just a few miles away—because we must understand who we are to the project of creating a society based on equality,” she added.
The courtroom she addressed had filled with law students, undergraduates and community members a half hour before the event began. A second-year law student, Marissa Leon, commented that the crowd was much larger and more varied than usual. Expecting unusual attendance, the Washington University School of Law prepared two overflow rooms.
Leon said she believed that the events at Ferguson made these issues appear much more relevant to people.
“It’s such a sensitive topic that everyone wants to be aware and learn more about it,” she said.
Sophomore Zoe Sissac felt that Ifill’s words were empowering and inspirational.
“I can see from her presentation that there are ways you can help directly embedded in law services,” she said.
Sissac said that the speech increased her interest in practicing law, and that she intends to learn more about becoming a part of the processes that can help change the world.
Ifill urged people to join the fight to end institutional and infrastructural racism.
“There are too few of us [who fight]. Too many Americans are sitting on the sidelines, critiquing. I’m asking you to join us,” Ifill said.