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Civil Rights Scholar Sherrilyn Ifill Issues Call to ‘Imagine a New Democracy’ at Harvard Law School Talk

Sherrilyn Ifill, a visiting professor of the practice at Harvard Law School, delivered the Law School’s annual Klinsky Lecture Wednesday.
Sherrilyn Ifill, a visiting professor of the practice at Harvard Law School, delivered the Law School’s annual Klinsky Lecture Wednesday. By Wonjae Suh
By Benjamin Isaac and Akshaya Ravi, Contributing Writers

Civil rights scholar Sherrilyn Ifill, a visiting professor of the practice at Harvard Law School, presented her vision for resolving the American “democratic crisis” at the Law School’s annual Klinsky Lecture Wednesday.

During the lecture, held at Wasserstein Hall, Ifill stressed the urgency of the challenges facing “multiracial democracy” in the U.S., drawing in part on her experience as the former president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The Klinsky Lecture is delivered each year by the holder of the visiting professorship of the same name. In an introduction, Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 thanked the lecture’s namesakes, Steven B. and Maureen A. Klinsky, for their donations to the school.

Ifill said recent outbreaks of violence in the U.S., including the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, underscore the importance of immediately addressing threats to American democracy.

“I believe and say often that we are in a democratic crisis,” Ifill said. “I see no reason to pretend that we are not, and in fact, I see a danger in pretending that we are not.”

Ifill added that the recent unrest is reminiscent of violence in the U.S. during the Reconstruction — which she said may contain lessons on how to confront the crisis.

“Part of the crisis we are in is a law crisis, a crisis in the rule of law, in the legitimacy of law and legal actors, of lawyers and of judges,” Ifill said.

However, Ifill said the democratic crisis is also a moment of extraordinary opportunity.

“Along with my doomsday predictions about crisis, I’m also unfailingly optimistic about the possibilities of democracy,” Ifill said. “It is precisely when we are in times of democratic crisis, and when the status quo, the received wisdom, is unraveling, and no longer is suited to the moment, that we have the opportunity to make transformative change.”

For this change to occur, Ifill described a process of looking to the successes and failures of the past for a new vision of American democracy.

“We are trying to create a multiracial democracy premised on ideas of equality and justice,” Ifill continued. “And we are doing it with a history that suggests that we are ill-suited to do it.”

“We can’t afford to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” she said. “That is, we should be mining our system for some of the gems, some of the tools that actually work.”

In particular, Ifill said she took inspiration from the 14th Amendment — one of three passed in the wake of the Civil War as part of what she called the country’s “Second Founding.”

“The 14th Amendment is really the provision in the Constitution to my mind that confronts with a measure of honesty the fact that those very guarantees and the project of this democracy are threatened by two powerful forces from within: the stubbornness of white supremacy and the threat constituted by the spirit of insurrection,” Ifill said.

“In its promise, its power, and pragmatism, it is in my view the most dynamic and potentially most powerful provision of our Constitution,” she added.

Alongside legal solutions, Ifill also underscored the role of engaging art and culture in promoting a new democratic vision.

“There must be a part of this project that engages artistic expression,” she said.

“While we the lawyers are working on litigation and bringing the cases, we’re tied together with those people from whom imagination is their bread and butter,” Ifill said.

She added that “we will not inhibit ourselves from believing that we, too, are entitled to imagine what our democracy can be.”

“I truly believe that this project is one that is not just about law and policy, although that is my specialty,” Ifill said. “I believe that it is also about imagination. We’re going to imagine a new democracy.”

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