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“Engage in the Work of Perfecting This Democracy”

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Reflecting on the significant anniversaries of major civil rights victories, Sherrilyn Ifill ’87 gave a stirring convocation speech exhorting graduating JD and LLM students to join her in “perfecting this democracy.” Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, capped a festive celebration of academic achievement that included bagpipes and speeches by Dean Trevor Morrison, Board Chairman Anthony Welters ’77, NYU President John Sexton, and graduands David Leapheart ’14 and Stephanie Chu LLM ’14.

Ifill, the keynote and final speaker, urged every lawyer to find a way to be a civil rights lawyer no matter their chosen career path.

She noted that 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, and the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. “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,” Ifill said.

America is still “relatively new at this thing called equality,” she added, saying there is immense ground to cover in terms of improving civil rights, from securing voting rights to addressing mass incarceration to closing the ever-increasing income gap. Therefore, Ifill told the graduating class, “I cannot release you from your obligation to engage in the work of perfecting this democracy.”

“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,” she said. “It is every lawyer’s obligation to engage in the hard, but necessary, work of democracy maintenance.”

For the women graduating, Ifill also had a particular message: “Women, I shouldn’t have to address special remarks to you, but I feel compelled to do so…. I advise against listening to advice on how to ‘do’ womanhood, whether that advice is to ‘lean in,’ ‘thrive,’ ‘be confident,’ or any number of other imperatives directed toward women. Just do you. You’re a woman. You’re going to be criticized no matter what course you take.”

Ifill returned to her original theme in her closing: “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 ethics of equality and of opportunity. 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.”

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