Civil Rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill delivers the keynote speech for Northwestern’s MLK Jr. Dream Week at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. Credit: Stephen Lewis/Northwestern University

Civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill stressed the necessity of dreaming as part of justice  work in her keynote address at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall Monday evening, capping off the university’s MLK “Dream Week” programming.

Ifill served as president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund from 2013 to 2022, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Ford Foundation.

She said although she often chafes at the reduction of Martin Luther King, Jr. to his “I Have a Dream” speech, her ability to continue working as an attorney depends on her believing change was actually possible.

“To be a civil rights lawyer or activist is to suspend disbelief,” Ifill said. “You are functioning in a system that you know to be unfair. You are deriving your professional self within the context of a system whose laws you confront every day, and you can’t look past them.”

Ifill applied this to the popular image of King and the civil rights movement by reflecting on the historical context of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering the “I Have a Dream” speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington. Credit: Library of Congress

She highlighted that the August 1963 speech was bookended by two acts of violent backlash to the movement’s work: the assassination of Medgar Evers two months prior in June, and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in September.

She said these painful events revealed the commitment to dreaming King and other leaders had, and why activists today must be similarly dedicated to be successful.

“It’s important that we remember that dreaming is also work,” Ifill said. “They want you to throw in the towel, they want you to give away your compassion and your love. And it takes work not to do it.”

After she finished her keynote address, Ifill discussed her views and career path with Prof. Sheila Bedi, director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law.

When discussing the work required to practice civil rights law, Bedi said that when she was hiring for the Southern Poverty Law Center, she occasionally encountered lawyers who said they wanted a “break from the grind.”

Ifill responded by saying the Legal Defense Fund only hires lawyers who strive for excellence in every aspect of their work, from preparation to presentation.

“You have to present as powerfully, as compassionately, as excellently, as humanely in the well of any federal court or the Supreme Court, as you do in the church basement at the meeting,” Ifill said. “The same respect that you would give the judge up on that bench is what you’re giving our clients.”

Northwestern’s Dream Week programming was organized by the university’s MLK Commemoration planning committee and sponsored by the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.

One week earlier, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Northwestern’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity held a candlelight vigil at Alice Millar Chapel, led by Rev. Dr. Michael Nabors of Evanston’s Second Baptist Church.

Alex Harrison

Alex Harrison joins the RoundTable for the summer in between his undergraduate and graduate studies at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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