Sherrilyn Ifill walks into court with history behind her as president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund. It’s the legal arm of the civil rights movement, and Sherrilyn is in its vanguard. Her hometown is Jamaica, Queens, a neighborhood in New York City where she grew up in the 1960s and ’70s. That’s what Kevin Burke explores with her in this conversation, starting with the first question Sherrilyn asks whenever she takes on a new legal case: “Tell me about the history of this place.” That’s because she knows every town has one: the layers of time, buried and built over, that reveal why things are the way they are, from the bulldozing of Black neighborhoods to make way for highways to brutal acts of violence like lynchings, erased from the public square and, over time, memory. Sherrilyn wants us to see these scars of history all around us and how they impact the struggle for equal justice in America. She’s compared this process of discovery to swallowing the red pill in the sci-fi action film, The Matrix. Once you see the past in the present, you can’t unsee it. What is the connection between Sherrilyn’s civil rights work and her powerful personal story and all she experienced in her New York? Join us at the intersection of place, time, and memory for another episode of Your Hometown.
"This was 40 years later and I still remembered this. [I] had not talked about it literally ever, I don't think, until that day. I think about what it means - that a 10-year-old Black child knows something about the justice system in America that apparently any extremely accomplished adult white person purports not to know."
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Judy Garland – “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (1944)
The Freedom Singers — “We Shall Not Be Moved at the March on Washington” (1963)
Choir of Zion Methodist Church — “Jesus Leads Me All the Way” (1970)
The Human Condition with Beverly Grant — “Clifford Grover” (1974)
The Matrix (1999)
Rosedale: The Way It Is (1976)
Illustrations – Nick Gregg
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Part 52, Leaves of Grass (1855)
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
A special thanks, too, to our co-presenter on this special New York City feature series, the Museum of the City of New York.
10: Sherrilyn Ifill – Jamaica, Queens
June 8, 2021
Intro: Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration): This episode is part of a special feature series on New York City and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York, with generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Find us at yourhometown.org or on your favorite podcast app.
Sherrilyn Ifill: This was 40 years later and I still remembered this. [I] had not talked about it literally ever, I don’t think, until that day. I think about what it means — that a 10-year-old Black child knows something about the justice system in America that apparently any extremely accomplished adult white person purports not to know.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): “Where did you grow up?” is a question we’re all asked a lot, but the answer is never as simple as a place on a map, is it? It’s about the kid inside of us and what happened to them there before we met the world and the world met us. I’m Kevin Burke and this is Your Hometown.
My guest is Sherrilyn Ifill, a civil rights attorney who walks into court with history behind her. Her official title is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Think of it as the legal arm of the civil rights movement, and Sherrilyn is in its vanguard. It’s the job that once belonged to Thurgood Marshall, before he went on the Supreme Court. Now, his hometown was Baltimore, where Sherrilyn lives now, but her hometown is New York City. Specifically, a neighborhood in Queens called Jamaica. That’s what I wanted to talk to her about, because I noticed that in her travels, she says that whenever she takes on a new case, the first question she asks people there is: “Tell me about the history of this place.”
That’s because she knows every town has one – the layers of time, buried and built over, that reveal why things are the way they are –
from the bulldozing of Black neighborhoods to make way for highways to brutal acts of violence like lynchings // erased from the public square and, over time, memory. Sherilynn wants us to see these scars of history all around us and how they impact the struggle for equal justice in America. She’s compared this process of discovery to swallowing the red pill in the sci-fi action film, The Matrix. Once you see the past in the present you can’t unsee it.
That’s what we’re trying to see, too, in Your Hometown. And in listening to Sherrilyn talk about the red pill, I wondered if she first took it as a child growing up in New York in the late 1960s and 70s. And, I really wanted to know it’s there a connection between her civil rights work of rescuing history for justice and her personal story as the youngest daughter in an extraordinarily big family – that included 9 brothers and sisters and her Mom and Dad, Myrtle and Lester Ifill – and what she experienced in her hometown along the way.
We spoke remotely for this interview, and I began by turning around that first question Sherrilyn asks her clients–“tell me about the history of this place.”
Sherrilyn: When I was growing up in Jamaica, Queens, where I was growing up was basically all Black. White people had left. My father said that we purchased our home from an older white woman. There were ten kids in our family plus with our parents, that’s twelve people in a very small home, one bathroom. I was just back in my old neighborhood and the houses seemed so close together. I mean, I don’t remember, I thought there was an actual driveway between them. But the houses were very, very close together. This was the first home for basically all the Black people who lived in this neighborhood. This was people trying to come out of the working class into the middle class, not with expendable cash, but believing that homeownership was this important thing. Now, I have to tell you, there were many instances during my childhood where our phone was turned off because we couldn’t pay the bill, or where we didn’t have enough oil in the tank for sufficient heat in the home where, [or] dinner was kind of dicey. But we lived in a house.
My father was convinced and attempted to convince us that we were middle class as a result of that. That ethic was in the neighborhood, that you wanted to be a homeowner. But what was also true was that we were just in the period in which bussing was really happening in New York for school integration. I was getting bussed to a school in Flushing along with my sister, who’s a year older than I am, and my sister, who’s five years older than I am. I was bussed from kindergarten. I’m the first in my family to be on a bus to school from the very beginning. If you look at my class picture from first grade, I am the only little Black girl. There’s just me and then there’s a Black boy, Maurice.
Now I look back and I can see what was happening. You would take a test and if you did well on the test they would put you in what they call the SP classes, which were the advanced classes. But I could see that they were dribbling us in as Black students into those classes. I’m the only one in the first-grade class. By third grade, by fourth grade, you see more and more Black kids being put in the SP classes.
We were very aware of race. My whole neighborhood was Black. Those are the kids you rode the bus with. Those are the kids you went home with. Those are the kids that you saw in the lunchroom. Those are the kids in your neighborhood. In my actual classroom, in those first early years, it was mostly white kids and then later evened out. But we were very aware of it. I don’t ever recall a time of not knowing that we were Black and they were white.
Kevin: In terms of your house, I’m fascinated. You mentioned that there were twelve of you and one bathroom. Where did you sleep, Sherrilyn? Did you share a room with your sisters?
Sherrilyn: Are you kidding? A room? I slept in the same bed as my sister, who’s a year older than me, until I was fifteen. We didn’t have bunk beds like that would have seemed so modern and exciting. No, no, no. We slept in the same bed. The same room, are you kidding me? I can remember standing on the line to go to the bathroom. One of the things that I think people forget when you have big families is that the age spread is huge. So, I was five when my brother was getting married. He was twenty-six. So, we weren’t all in the same house at the same time for very long.
Kevin: My dad is the youngest of ten also, same as you, and my uncle Ed was twenty years older than my dad. That was the age range.
Kevin: It’s interesting, my dad, because of that — when my Uncle Edward was in the Pacific in the War and his other brothers found out there was a new baby in the family, they thought it was his, they didn’t think it was a sibling. They thought, oh Ed had a brother because they were so surprised by it. My grandparents were sort of embarrassed by it. They were in their forties when this happened. But as a result, one of the sad things for my dad is that he lost his father when he was ten and his mother when he was fourteen. So, Uncle Ed, the oldest, didn’t marry, but essentially raised my father. He had no children of his own, but gave everything up to raise my dad.
Kevin: One of the connection points that I’ve been mindful about with you is that I know that you lost your mom when you’re five.
Kevin: People think of the year 1968 as another turbulent time in our country, the Vietnam War raging [and] the loss of two great figures, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr — a lot happening. The country was mourning, but you were privately losing someone, a great tree in your own life.
Sherrilyn: Yes, ‘68 is very heavy for me. I’m not sure — I feel like I vaguely remember Dr. King’s funeral. I feel like I remember that.
[07:57 we hear audio from MLK’s funeral]
Sherrilyn: For me, my mom’s death in December kind of caps off this year, and sadly, I think it capped it off for her too. My older siblings talk about how difficult that year was for her. Try to imagine you’re a young woman, you know you’re terminally ill, you’re leaving behind all your babies. And you see these assassinations of these young men. My older siblings talk about that, about the killing of Bobby Kennedy that summer and how devastating that was. That year has always felt to me like if you say it, if you say 1968, it carries for me something very, very heavy and ominous.
And it was difficult. It was life changing, family changing, I think, particularly, [for] families who lose parents and especially who lose moms. I don’t think we ever recovered from it to be honest with you. I just think it was so, so difficult for us. I have three children and frequently thought I’m going to lose it and so I don’t know how she did it —
Kevin: I have two and am already losing it.
Sherrilyn: I mean seriously.
Kevin: It’s tough.
Sherrilyn: She was a very powerful figure. It’s not like she was some — I mean, now I understand that she was dying. And I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t sick because she was sick when I was quite young. I always remember her going to the doctor. I frequently went with her because I was home before I went to school. I remember that, but I don’t remember her not having power. I don’t remember her being diminished at all in terms of the power in our home. She was the leader and I’m very grateful for what she managed to put into me, which I do think has very powerfully influenced me. She loved me, maybe the way you would if you knew you were going to leave behind your very young child, but maybe the way all of us love our very young children, you know.
She was a strict disciplinarian with everyone, but she loved me. She loved to kiss me, to have me come in the house, “give me a kiss, give me a hug.” I can remember that. I think it’s remarkable. I think those are the things that shape your sense of yourself, your sense of self-esteem. It’s so important to feel that you —
Kevin: And security.
Sherrilyn: And security, yes.
Kevin: You said she died in December so was it around your birthday? I know your birthday is the seventeenth.
Sherrilyn: Yeah it was fifth.
[We hear Judy Garland “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (1944)]
Sherrilyn: I do remember Christmas, though. I do remember Christmas because neighbors brought over presents. I can even remember one of the dolls I got from a neighbor. People tried to be helpful.
Kevin: Did you go to your mom’s funeral?
Kevin: You did.
Kevin: I was going to ask you about that because I was thinking about what that must have been like for you. I lost my grandfather and uncle when I was four and five and I went to their wakes and their funerals. I saw them in their caskets and I went to the burials and it was such a searing memory for a young mind, a young person. I really felt that it created in me almost sort of a dividing line in history, where I sensed around me, as a little boy, my grandmother being so sad, my mom being sad, my aunt. As someone who hoped to become a historian, it made sense because I always realized that if I could go back to before they died and conjure the memories of my grandfather and uncle, it made them happy. I was very aware of the trauma of the loss in my family and of these great trees falling, but also that memories could be a comfort.
Sherrilyn: To pick up on the theme that you just described, I think it’s part of actually being the youngest in a family as well. You sense, and then my mom passes away. There’s like a whole part of the family that you can never be part of. Do you know what I mean? I do feel that way. I did always feel like I wanted to be part of them. They seemed so cool and amazing and they had a life that they could talk about. I love to hear stories, like I’d pester my older siblings about stories about what their childhood was like, about what things they remember about my mom, but also just about their lives. I’m eternally fascinated by the family that existed before the family that I knew, which was different, which was a different family, because of the years, but also because Mom was really not, for most of my life, a part of it. That is something that was very precious to me and still is very precious. I will still, like a kid, like “and then tell me what happened” and “who was there” — kind of like you’re asking me. I’m eternally fascinated by the family that existed before the family ended.
Kevin: I completely identify with that. We would often — and as I look back on it, people don’t do this anymore, but we would have slideshows, like we’d get together for Christmas or Thanksgiving and at some point in the evening the lights would go out and they’d put the carousel on.
Sherrilyn: Oh I love that.
Kevin: And it would always be some trip my grandparents took or and there would be these photos of the family together with the ones who are gone in it. I was just like you. I want to live in that. I want to live in this house.
Sherrilyn: I’m that way about the Civil Rights Movement. I would watch those documentaries and I would think, okay how was I not born then? How, what — I want to be in that. Eternally kind of a time travel.
[14:28 we hear The Freedom Singers perform “We Shall Not Be Moved” at the March on Washington]
Sherrilyn: I’m so jealous of these generations, people have cameras with them all the time, their whole lives are documented.
Kevin: They have an instant archive.
Sherrilyn: Yes, and I think what I wouldn’t give for that. What I wouldn’t give for all these little videos that you just have on your phone. I’ve thought about it a lot during COVID, this past year, especially last year in the spring when these awful people were saying, “Well you know these people are elderly and they’re going to pass away anyway.” I mean, these heartless, terrible people. Maybe this person was only going to live another ten years or maybe they were going to only live another — just the terrible things that people were saying. For me, I’ll just say what I thought was what I wouldn’t give to have given more years with my mom, which would allow me to remember her voice. It would allow me to actually have rich, full memories of her. When people say things cavalierly like that, I’m so grateful that she didn’t pass away until I was almost six because I at least have some memories. If she had passed when I was three, I wouldn’t have any. For me, every year makes a difference.
Kevin: It really does.
Sherrilyn: And how you can access the life of your family. I just think it’s so wonderful, people probably can’t appreciate what it means that they have photographs and videos of their whole family’s life. Thirty, forty years from now, they’ll be able to say this is what happened on that day. Then this is what happened the next day. It’s amazing.
[16:19 we hear The Freedom Singers perform “We Shall Not Be Moved” at the March on Washington]
Kevin: You and your sister Darlene were born in the States, but the other older eight siblings were all born in Panama and they came with your parents in ‘59 to New York. What did you learn by watching them grow up and what role did they play in your life as this trajectory was completely turned upside down by the loss of your mom?
Sherrilyn: The sense of connection to them was incredibly powerful. Always has been. I mean, I say to this day, my brother — I lost my brother a few years ago, really beloved. I used to say to him, which is the truth, that I’m always trying not to shame them, I’m always trying to make them proud. And he’s like, what would you do that would, like, what is that? Why is that even a thing? I thought it was crazy, but nothing makes me happier than when they think that something I did was great. When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to have ten kids, too, because I just thought it was so cool to be in a super big family. Obviously, I changed my mind on that. And we were freaks; I didn’t know anybody else who had such a big family. The only people we knew who had a family that was that big, who we therefore identified with, were the Kennedy’s, like noble yet penniless. But we were the analog, we were like the Black Kennedy’s.
Kevin: They sound like extraordinary people.
Sherrilyn: They are. Whatever I have been able to accomplish is part of my family. I always think it’s important that I just don’t believe — when people talk about being self-made or I just find it so shocking that people would eat this, almost-like, blasphemy. It’s just not something I would ever say. My sister, Darlene, who’s a year older than I am, was just my rock for many years. There’s something to you go[ing] to a school and you always know[ing] somebody. Your sister is there. She’s been there a year ahead of you. The anchor of that. There’s nobody — like if the two of us get together, if I’m going to laugh until I’m sick, it’s going to be with her.
Kevin: Yeah. And didn’t your one brother who was an electrician signed the promissory note for your college? That’s amazing.
Sherrilyn: Yes. And people don’t understand what it meant for a Black man to be in the union, and to get in the union in 1969, in the Local 3 union and to have worked diligently. He worked on everything in New York. He did every auto show. He was part of the team working to repair the electrical system after 9/11. That’s my brother’s life, so like an amazing human being. But I think that because he worked in a trade, people wouldn’t think, oh how was he connected to my walk as a lawyer or whatever. But that’s the connection. The connection is that, and that’s what big families do, right? They pay it forward. When I got admitted to Vassar College, they were like, here’s the scholarship. The scholarship was huge, it seemed amazing. And then they were like, here’s your student loan part, and then here’s your parent [loan]. We didn’t have any of it, but he was the one that had the good credit. He had the good credit and the home and he could sign that promissory note so I could get my student loan.
I think it’s so important for people to understand how what my family was able to accomplish is not only because we’re an extraordinary family, but because we were coming up in a particular time and you could rely on public goods to move you along. When my sister and brother could go to City College at the time, the registration was eighty-five dollars a semester. I can tell you, we were always late. It was always late. We didn’t have the eighty-five dollars. They didn’t have the book money. I mean, like that’s how much we were scrambling for money. But you could pull it off right. I’ve said I received the best K through 12 education I could possibly have received in the New York City public school system during that brief period when there was real integration happening. It also happens to coincide with the period when there was the greatest federal investment in education, and that also coincides with the period in which there was the smallest achievement gap, racial achievement gap. When people say they don’t know how [or] how do we do it? How do we close it? Well, we did know actually. My high school was the most integrated experience I’ve ever had in my life, not just Black, white, but Latino and Asian-American. It very much shaped my view of what public education can be.
Kevin: And your school was new. It was built in ‘71.
Sherrilyn: Yeah. Hillcrest High School. I remember when it was built, we were like, is this some plan? Are they trying to now — because I should have gone to John Bowne High School. I remember we had a big conversation about it with my dad. That was the question. My father was a very political, real race man. Is this a plan to try to keep Black kids out of their school? Where did this Hillcrest High School come from? We were very suspicious at first. But I also say that it was an extraordinary experience. I always loved school, like many kids in very large families do because it’s like okay out of the house. So, I loved it. I was bright, I knew I was bright. I had some amazing English teachers that I remember to this day, one who I still actually talked to, journalism teacher Gary Stern. I mentioned him on Twitter the other day because I said the first week he taught us how to fold the New York Times appropriately on the subway.
Kevin: I saw that.
Sherrilyn: So that was him, Gary Stern.
Kevin: And to give people space.
Sherrilyn: Important lessons. These are just New York City lessons.
Kevin: Where did you feel like you most belonged in high school? Where did you feel like you least fit in those years? What was your scene?
Sherrilyn: Scene. Well, again, I still came from a very strict home, so I wasn’t very much allowed to participate in scenes. So yeah. I had a group of friends. We were from basically the same neighborhood, a group of Black girls. We’d known each other, we’d all gone to school together since elementary school. We had a good time. My kind of little separation was that I was super into school, I was super into academics. Then they had this incredible theater department. Every year was the school play and we loved it. I loved it anyway. That was my after-school thing. I edited the literary magazine and the yearbook. Those were kind of my things. It was the fun that you have with your girlfriends. It was going to — it was all house parties in those days. Music was a big part of our lives.
Kevin: The late 70s was really happening in New York.
Sherrilyn: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You’d come home. I can remember, you came home, you put on — there were three stations. There was 92 Q, Kiss FM.
Kevin: Oh yes.
Sherrilyn: Then of course, WBLS 107.5. These were the three stalwarts.
[We hear The O’Jays “Use Ta Be My Girl” on WBLS 107.5 New York with Frankie Crocker (1978) ]
Sherrilyn: When you came home from school, you just went between those three because you wanted your songs. The music was amazing. And so, music, dancing, and going to parties was really a lot of fun. But otherwise we had a pretty sedentary home life. Like we didn’t do things. We didn’t have the kind of money where we went on vacation every year or anything like that.
[23:53 we hear the Choir of the Zion Methodist Church perform “Jesus Leads Me All the Way” (1970)]
Kevin: You mentioned your dad was strict. Let’s talk about him and your relationship with him, Lester Ifill Sr. He was a social worker in Harlem, very involved with the AME Church in your community and someone that was very politically engaged, but also strict.
Sherrilyn: Well strict and also emotionally [un]available. He remarried several years after my mom died so I had a stepmom. He was very conservative in this following sense: he wore a suit to work. He had a fedora hat. He had a briefcase. What I realized later was such a blessing and a wonder was I never had to wonder where my dad was. My dad was not like — “he might be in a bar,” that was not [him]. He went to work. He came home. He had dinner. We watched the news. Usually he watched a baseball game, which is how I ended up liking baseball, which is on all the time.
[25:06 we hear archival from the 1978-Boston Massacre, Game 2 (WPIX-TV Audio)]
Sherrilyn: He took us to Yankees games, which was great. In those days, again, you could take — at that point there were three or four kids at home. He could actually take you. You could afford it and he could park. Now, I can’t imagine it. So huge, huge baseball fan. [He] certainly liked the Schaefer beer — uh one — like, I never saw him drunk, like nothing like that.
He was very conservative, which when you’re a kid, it’s like, oh how boring. He goes to work. He comes home. It was only later when I got to college and heard some of the exploits of what people’s parents did, that I was like what? What do you mean? But what is funny is there’s an age differential piece to it. My father was super strict. He didn’t want us to go out. We couldn’t date, really at all. My older siblings will talk about — my father used to take them to the Apollo Theater to see Jackie Wilson and James Brown and I’m like, “What are you talking about? That guy?”
[26:41 we hear James Brown’s “Lost Someone” live at the Apollo Theatre (1962)]
Sherrilyn: They said, “Oh, yeah. I mean, we weren’t allowed to go on our —.” But they weren’t allowed to go on their own, so he would take them. They said, “And he would just sit there while we scream their heads off.” By the time I was in high school, he was elderly, by the time I was in high school, to be frank.
Kevin: He was slowing down.
Sherrilyn: They had a different dad. In a family that big, there are probably three families, there are like three different experiences that happen over the course of the life of that family with their parents.
Kevin: You had the older version of him, in a way, but also, because he was home a lot, watching TV, especially political news shows like Meet the Press, you got that part of him, which was watching news with him. Now we’re living in such a news saturated time but back then that must have been distinguishing for you as a kid compared to your friends.
Sherrilyn: The most important thing I learned was that you don’t consume the news.
[27:58 we hear archival news clip of the Huntley-Brinkley report, July 31, 1970]
Sherrilyn: We were always talking about it while it was happening. It wasn’t like David Brinkley was bringing the Torah and the Talmud. They were saying whatever they were saying. My father was saying what he was saying, which was, “Yeah, but they don’t know that –,” you know, he had a commentary. That sense that there’s a critical eye you’re bringing to the news, I now realize was being developed then. I don’t ever recall us just passively absorbing the news.
And we watched TV a lot. In those days, we didn’t have 500 channels. We had ABC, CBS, [and] NBC. And then you had Channel 11 WPIX, Channel 9, where you watch the Million Dollar Movie, [and] the Public Television Channel, Channel 13, and that was it. And they were all showing the Watergate hearings, for God sakes. There was nothing else to watch. It was absolutely crushing. I’m a very little kid at this time. We were bored out of our minds. So, you just sit there, you just sit there. It was just hour after hour, so boring until suddenly it wasn’t. You could feel the shift and the shift happened when John Dean testified.
[29:24 we hear an archival clip from the televised Watergate hearings, May 17, 1973]
Sherrilyn: I remember this one woman comes in super glamorous, Maureen Dean. She’s got the white hair parted, the coat, and something’s happening. What he’s describing is something that even I can understand is problematic for this president. I remember when it got not boring. And then, of course, there was Barbara Jordan. I will say that definitely changed my life.
[30:20 we hear archival clip of Barbara Jordan’s impeachment speech]
Sherrilyn: A woman, a Black woman with a voice of absolute moral authority, holding a room like that, speaking with absolute certainty, and as I’ve said, not being on television for entertainment or because she’s glamorous — very, very powerful for me in thinking about who I could be as a woman. You really needed this, and especially for Black girls, because, as I said, there weren’t that many of us on TV. I still remember being called to the TV whenever there was a Black person. My father actually used to do that.
There was Barbara Jordan. There was Shirley Chisholm. There was Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who was a councilperson in Los Angeles. My father would call me if they came on the television. I just think that women tend to need to see those role models, Black women, certainly, and certainly Black girls, and particularly in that period of time. I always credit that too, thinking about my family. We’ve got very much a kind of helping family, a service family. I always say that service is the family business. We’ve got the nurses and the teachers and which is what you told little Black girls they could be if they were super smart in the early 60s. By the time I — again, I talk about that period of time in which I went to school, that was just the period when you could begin to tell little Black girls that they could be a lawyer or a doctor. It’s not surprising that the two youngest of us, nine and ten, are a doctor and a lawyer. That’s also about what was happening generationally in terms of gender in this country, and what possibilities we were putting into the head of girls who were smart. Were we telling them they could be teachers and nurses, or were we telling them they could be doctors and lawyers? Nothing wrong with any of it, but just opening up possibilities is part of the journey. I think of how gender roles opened up, began to open up, particularly in the early 70s.
Kevin: I understand that for your high school yearbook, you actually described that your goal was to be the first Black woman Supreme Court justice,
Sherrilyn: I did.
Kevin: Which is really interesting because you were only four or five years old when Thurgood Marshall broke that barrier in ‘67. Here you are in 1980, naming a dream.
Kevin: Here we are in 2021, where we now have a president who is committed to doing that, but it’s 40 years later, 40 years on from your dream and you realize it still hasn’t happened. What I was going to ask you is, I read social media, of course, and a number of people have mentioned you as their dream to have that role, to be that person, and not to put you on the spot about whether or not you would want that still, but, if you were to have that appointment, Sherrilyn — you know, people aren’t supposed to bring their politics under the bench, but they do bring their experiences — what from your childhood would you want to bring with you to be mindful of?
Sherrilyn: At this moment, people in the country are very much focused on issues of police violence. My first experience at this was when I was ten and an NYPD officer shot and killed a ten-year-old boy.
[34:39 we hear archival news clip about Clifford Glover murder]
Sherrilyn: It resonated for me because I was ten and the boy was ten. What I shared is that I didn’t even remember much about it. I just know that it happened. I did remember that the officer’s name was Shea [and] that he got away with it. What scares me is that I remembered his name. I didn’t talk about this until Ferguson happened, until after Mike Brown was killed. I happened to be in St. Louis doing a radio show and I spoke about this case. And I remembered. I remembered the parents talking about it at the bus stop. I remembered the front page of the paper on the coffee table. I remembered those things.
When I got back to my hotel room, somebody tweeted at me and said, “I found the story” and there it was. It was Clifford Glover who had been killed that Saturday morning while being out with his dad. The officer’s name was Shea. This was 40 years later and I still remembered this. I had not talked about it literally ever, I don’t think, until that day. I think about what it means, that a ten-year-old Black child knows something about the justice system in America that apparently many extremely accomplished adult white people purport not to know.
That means that however well-educated you are, whatever the fancy law school [and] however, well you did, whatever your fancy clerkship, you need to have some humility about what it takes to actually do justice. There are ten-year-old children who know more about what justice is like in America, who know more about race in America, who know more about inequality in America than some people who are grown and accomplished and running their own companies. The most important thing first is to understand that it takes more than the words on the paper.
[37:09 we hear Beverly Grant’s “Uncle Sam” 1(974)]
Kevin: That’s sort of the other New York — you were talking of the New York of the public good before, there’s also this, you were growing up in this New York, too.
Sherrilyn: Yeah and it never felt like that. That was a shocking surprise, that there was another New York. But what’s interesting is that because, as you point out, this was a period of tremendous upheaval, I had a sense that anything was possible. The Watergate hearings and the resignation of Nixon was super powerful for me. Because it suggests that to want to be a lawyer, certainly to want to be a civil rights lawyer, as I did, is to know that there is injustice. That means you know, but you actually believe that you are capable of working to improve the system or else you wouldn’t want to take it on. Those two things are happening at the same time. That’s what it means to be a civil rights lawyer, is to be very clear eyed about the weaknesses in American democracy, about fundamental inequality, about racial inequality, but to believe that there is a role for you to play and for the law to play in transforming the inequality in that system.
[38:45 we hear a clip from The Matrix ]
Kevin: You’ve had this remarkable career. You are now President and Director of Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It’s the legal arm of the Civil Rights Movement and such an important force in our society. One of the things that I was really struck by reading your work and hearing you speak before is that you’ve compared your ability to see the unseen history in the physical landscapes of our society — you compare that to swallowing the red pill in The Matrix. It gives you a superpower that you see this other dimension, which is the past and how it overlays onto the present. I was going to ask you if there is a story when you first remember taking that red pill and “oh my goodness, now I see something that I didn’t notice before, but now I can’t not see that.”
Sherrilyn: It’s a process to this day. I’m still learning so much and one of the things, just to go back to your earlier question about if you’re sitting on the court, is to know how much you don’t know. I’ve always said that understanding race and inequality is like one of the most rigorous disciplines; you have to know psychology, history, labor economics, and law. It’s unbelievable, all of the disciplines that come into understanding it. So, I feel like I’m constantly learning.
[41:32 we hear a clip from Rosedale: The Way It Is]
Sherrilyn: It’s funny, I can remember it’s so interesting because the show has come back up over the last year, but I was a kid when I saw the show Rosedale: The Way It Is, which was a PBS special about the violent resistance to integration on Long Island. Yeah. I remember I watched it with my father. Not only did I watch it, but I came upstairs and I wrote in my journal about it. I was so upset.
Sherrilyn: I was so upset that I came and that’s how I knew, Rosedale: The Way It Is, it stayed in my head and wrote about it. I was just so distressed by what I saw.
[42:30 we hear a clip from Rosedale: The Way It Is]
Sherrilyn: I was just so distressed by what I saw and remember, as I said, my neighborhood was a Black neighborhood, but we were aware this was kind of a white flight neighborhood. We also knew where those people flew to, which was largely Long Island. Long Island was always kind of out there. It was the suburbs. There were some Black people who lived out there, but we didn’t pay much attention.
We went to Long Island to go to the state parks, that was our thing as a family. We would go to Heckscher State Park. That was our thing. We would — every state park, Sunken Meadow, Wildwood. We didn’t go on vacations, but we went to state parks every holiday. You got up early, you made the sandwiches, fried the chicken, you packed the hamper and you went to these great state parks, which are also part of the public goods, and when you’re in a big family you can take advantage of going to well-kept state parks. So that was Long Island, was that.
But this Rosedale: The Way It Is was like, wait a minute, wait one doggone second. This is how it’s going down in a place not very far from me. It’s like I’m watching TV all the time, watching all these documentaries about the South. And we were, as I said, we were exposed to our own racial incidents in school and so forth. But we lived in separate neighborhoods. So we didn’t have these encounters in my neighborhood right where you lived. You had things that happened in school and then you got on the bus and you went home with all the Black kids to your Black neighborhood. Seeing Rosedale: The Way It Is was something else, because this encounter particularly between Black and white kids, to hear adults talking in that awful, hideous, irresponsible, racist way, it was powerful.
Kevin: You set the scene for people who don’t know it. They can go Googling. They can find it now because it has recently surfaced. It was done in ‘75 and Rosedale I guess it’s about five miles, maybe south southeast of Jamaica and it’s not too far away, but it can be a world away in certain ways. But the really searing scene are these African-American kids on their bikes who’ve come down from Cambria Heights, which is, again, a few miles north in Queens. There, they ride their bikes into this neighborhood and they’re surrounded by these white kids who are pelting them with rocks and calling them all kinds of names. It is a horror show and it is in New York City in 1975.
[45:30 we hear a clip from Rosedale: The Way It Is]
Kevin: It just takes your breath away when you watch it. There you are and you say you’re twelve years old, something like that. So, you wrote in your journal because it produced such an immediate reaction it sounds like.
Sherrilyn: Yeah, it was one of the few times I was struck dumb. I couldn’t speak. And I went and wrote in my journal about like, wow, this is what you know, this is the truth. This is what’s really happening. I mean, it really was one of those red pill moments. I just will never forget it. I will never forget it. When I watch it now and obviously I’ve been a civil rights lawyer for a very long time and so none of it is surprising and I can place it in a historical context and so forth, but it’s still super painful to watch. And the through line, of course, is I think when kids see what happens to other kids, it’s like Clifford Glover and I being the same age. That was it for me.
Kevin: When you saw that video or you read about Clifford Glover in the newspaper, you mentioned that there were racial incidents at school. What was something that you directly observed that wasn’t something you saw in the press or the news?
Sherrilyn: Oh, it was always about treatment. It was always about treatment. It was always about a Black kid being punished for things that white kids wouldn’t be punished for, being punished more harshly than a white kid or not being selected for something that they were obviously super qualified for in favor of a white kid. It was those kinds of incidents that were very apparent or how much the word of white kids was trusted in any dispute between kids by the adults and then later teachers. I can remember one of my high school teachers who was just — she couldn’t believe that I was in this accelerated class and she wanted me to go and get permission from the department. She was notorious and well-known as being awful. We later became actually good friends. And she’s the person who selected me to edit the literary journal well.
Kevin: Oh, wow okay.
Sherrilyn: Yeah, she did. She did. But her initial — I’m sitting in the classroom and she just thought, well, she must not be — that they expect the low expectations all of that was there. I mean, I remember the feeling. I remember the feeling of just like, how dare she underestimate who I am and how brilliant I am. I had no false modesty about what I thought was my intellectual capacity. And so, I just remember that feeling. I mean, I was almost kind of shaking with how angry I was at her diminishment of me. So, yeah you feel those things.
Kevin: And also, you know, thinking about that red pill now from the vantage point of distance, having had a career where you’ve really been on the front lines, both as a professor, as an investigator, a researcher and as a courtroom lawyer, how do you see New York in a fuller way? I’m thinking about the physical landscape. I’m thinking about the ghosts. I’m thinking about the erasures.
Sherrilyn: So first, I would just add, in terms of who I am, it’s also as a legal historian. I ended up writing about lynching and in part to try to suggest that there’s this other world that people don’t see and that actually, there’s been a quite concerted effort to have people not talk about, but that it is present. And so, when I do my travels around this country sadly, I know a little bit too much about lynching, at least my kids would say, and I show up almost anywhere and I think, oh, yes, but, you know, in 1917, this is what happened. My kids hate traveling with me for that reason. But it is helpful for me to just know that the most beautiful, quiet little town with the perfect town square has a history. There’s racial history everywhere in this country, even where people think Black people are not. If Black people are not there, there’s a reason they’re not there. So that’s real.
For me in New York, New York is a place of tremendous inequality. It just is. When I was a kid, those things were understood as that was just what it was, you just understood [it] as inevitable, who lives in Manhattan and who doesn’t, who lives, who lives on the east side and who doesn’t. This is where wealthy people live. This is where wealthy people do not live. The issue of gentrification — so I grew up in Queens, but then obviously I lived in Manhattan during law school. I was at NYU Law School and I lived in the Village. Then I lived for five years in Brooklyn. Where I lived in Brooklyn, now, I could not conceivably afford [it]. The way in which Black people are just kind of moving around to accommodate whatever is the desire of white people to either live in the suburbs or live in the city, which changes every ten years, and how Black people get priced out of the neighborhoods they grew up in. Obviously, the education system, this deeply segregated education system, which I know is not inevitable because I went to an integrated one in New York. So, I know it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s just astonishing.
I went to my old neighborhood a few months ago, as I said and this was a place that was able to launch people trying to become middle class and to just see kind of who’s still stuck. You can see what is stuck. You can see the failure to really provide the kind of revitalization that always is the conversation of something that’s coming, but that never comes for so many Black communities. You can see a system that still doesn’t provide us the means to be able to have real mobility in our lives. So, I’m extremely conscious of inequality in New York. And it’s pretty infuriating because like most kids, you grew up with your New York dreams. “One day I’m going to –.” You’re not really thinking about the ways in which you are being structurally held in place. It’s really quite distressing, actually, and that’s why I so push for these kind of public, for greater public engagement around the truth about who we are.
And I do believe that, like beginning with the physical landscape really helps. Why do these people live on–? Why is the South Side the South Side? Why is the Upper West Side the Upper West Side with our vision of who lives there and what is comprised of that community? Why do we think of South Jamaica, Queens a certain way and Flushing another way? Like what happened? Just helping people understand the physical history of where they are. It seems so important to me. I do it not just so that people can know the history, but so they can understand that what they see is not inevitable. It was created by policies and practices that ended up steering people to different places and in different kinds of ways with different opportunities. Once you know that that was not inevitable and that it was created, you should know that you have the power to create something different.
Kevin: And also in pursuing justice, you can rescue history or you can rescue history in the pursuit of justice. That’s what you’ve done. I was going to say, going back to the beginning of our conversation, we talked about your mom and we were just sharing about loss in a family and how it creates the sense of before and after. I was wondering, do you see a connection between your work as a civil rights lawyer who does rescue history and pursuing justice and someone who also grew up trying to fight against the erasure of memory because holding on to it meant holding on to someone that meant a lot to you.
Sherrilyn: Yes, I do, actually. I really do. I mean, I am kind of obsessed with history, particularly with Black people’s history. What we did before, how we approached life, how we managed to survive, how we thrived, how we found joy. I’m just fascinated by it. There is no question in my mind that I’m fascinated by it because I feel like I was kind of cut off from my own in a very powerful way. And so I’ve kind of adopted other people’s histories for my obsession, and also because I feel in my own this extraordinary nobility is the only word I can describe for it and when I’m doing my work, I find it as well. I’m just blown away by what I see as just a through line of incredible nobility, of courage, of people who just have no idea what the outcome is going to be, but keep pushing. They could not possibly know. There’s no possible way my mother could imagine who I was going to be, that was just not part of her world. But, she taught me to read when I was four, three, four, three, my three, my sister in law says. She was folding things into me knowing she wouldn’t see the outcome and not knowing what the outcome could possibly be. I’m fascinated by that. People who tried to build homes and stake out land and started a school and built a church and traveled across the country and left the south. Whatever is the thing, it’s just like how. Are we worthy of them or do we have enough courage? Are we noble enough to be worthy of these incredible people who had significantly fewer tools and resources than we have and had no reason to hope that things would be drastically different, to be frank.
Kevin: Also in your own life, you had to achieve resiliency too because you had this break in your life and you had to do the same thing in your own way.
Sherrilyn: Yes. Well the good thing, there’s no good thing about losing somebody that you love very young, but you kind of know the thing that takes people a long time to learn in life, which is like —
Kevin: That’s right.
Sherrilyn: Terrible upending things actually can happen. It’s the thing we all fear, losing people that we love. It’s already happened to you.
Kevin: Has that made you more conscious as a mother of three children? About what they say, about what you want them to know about your story, your childhood for example, things you can’t know about your mother, that you want them to know about your story? So, they don’t have the same sense of mystery that you might be left with.
Sherrilyn: Yes. And actually, I think I overdo it. I think they would say that. You’ve sadly hit the nail on the head. Yes, I am perpetually determined for them to know me. I’m so committed to a certain transparency with them, not everything, obviously, but yeah, probably too much. But I do try to tell them everything. They’re like, “eh” you know, not that interested. They have the blessing of having their parents for a very long time until they’re through being adults. But yes, yes, I’m quite obsessed with trying to tell them, trying to show them, trying to share with them, trying to give them the stuff that when I’m gone, they can say, yes, this is why she was this way and this is what she did when she was seven and this is how she saw this. Things that I can never say. I want that for them.
Kevin: I end every interview the same way Sherrilyn, which is I read a passage from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass “Song of Myself,” ultimate New York poet. He writes these words and then I want to ask you the final question. “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles//You will hardly know who I am or what I mean/But I shall be good health to you nevertheless/And filter and fibre your blood//Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged/Missing me one place search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
What I wanted to ask you, bring[ing] our conversation about history and place and time together, especially in the context of childhood, 50, 100, 200 years from now, if someone in your family or someone in our society discovers Sherrilyn Ifill and wants to know you and commune with your spirit and walk where you walked, where would you tell them to go in your hometown of New York and say “If you really want to know me, if you really want to stand where I stood and feel me, go to this place in New York, go to this place in my hometown,” where should we go?
Sherrilyn: I think that’s the most extraordinary question and one that I can’t answer. Because I don’t feel that I physically connected with one place in New York. I’ll just end by saying this, one of the features of having something traumatic happen when you were a kid, which in my circumstance was the loss of my mom, is that you spend so much time in your imagination. I had an incredible imagination life. You could go to my home, the block I grew up, to try to get a sense of something and I’d be there. Even when I was just there the other day, I was like, oh wow, look where –I was here. I feel there’s part of me there. You could go to my elementary school, which I returned to a few years ago when I was giving the commencement address at CUNY Law School and the commencement address was being held. I called an auditorium where my high school graduation was, but I went back to P.S. 219 in Flushing, and I felt — I went into the school and I felt myself there. I did. I did. I go to Hillcrest. I feel myself there. Absolutely. I go to Vassar a lot. I feel myself there. I go to NYU Law School. I’m on the board. I feel myself there. There are streets in New York where I feel myself. I’m at LDF, which is a New York based organization.
Kevin: It is.
Sherrilyn: And where I spent my first five years as a lawyer, I feel myself there. But in every instance, my imagination was working overtime about where I wanted to be next, about what I wanted to be doing, about where I wanted to travel, about what I wanted for my kids, about what kind of cases I wanted to bring next, about what I wanted to write. I’m not saying this like it was a good thing. I think it was a coping mechanism, but one I’ve never fully freed myself of. That’s why I never I never hunger for “what should I do.” That’s just not me. I have a file of imaginative dreams of what I could do and should do and must do and where I must go and what I want to seed into other people, whether it’s young lawyers or my children or my family members. I don’t know where you’d find me. I hope you’d find me in them, in the other people that I spend so much time thinking about and the work I’ve tried to accomplish, which I spend an incredible amount of time thinking about as well. I always have. You could catch a brief whiff by going to all these places. But the truth is, I’m hoping it shows up where you can’t see it. I’m hoping that I’ve integrated my work and my influence so deeply that things have just shifted in ways that that [for] others, 20 years from now, experience is just something — is just air. That’s just the way it is. That’s my hope. Nothing monumental, no statue. Just making change in the lives of real people that produces something different and better.
Kevin: That’s beautiful. Let’s let it lie there. Sherrilyn Ifill, thank you so much for being with your hometown.
Sherrilyn: Thank you, Kevin. This was great.
[01:03:01 we hear Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad”]
Kevin (voice over narration): These lines from Bruce Springsteen’s Grapes of Wrath-inspired song, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, were on my mind when I was working on Sherrilyn’s episode. Who she’s standing up for … and who the guiding forces were in her journey from her hometown of Jamaica, Queens to towns across America with their own histories of place, time, and memory.
Your Hometown is a Kevin Burke production. For more, please visit our website at your hometown.org, where you can listen to all our past episodes and find show notes and artwork for each guest.
You can also follow us on your favorite podcast app, and when you’re there, please fill out a survey to let us know how we’re doing. Please also follow us on social media, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.
Also, when you get a chance, check out our show’s New York City series page, including information on live events, on the Museum of the City of New York’s website at mcny.org/yourhometown-podcast.
Now I’d like to thank the team that works with me on your hometown, beginning with our executive producer, Robert Krulwich, our art director, Nick Gregg, our editor and sound designer, Otis Streeter, our composer/performer, Sterling Steffen, and our researcher Shakila Khan.
Our branding website design is by Tama Creative. And Kaila Hale-Stern does an amazing job managing our social media.
A special thanks, too, to our partners this season, the Museum of the City of New York.
I also can’t thank enough the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and our other financial supporters for their deep belief in this series until next time.
Thanks so much for taking this ride with me. And remember, everyone’s from someplace, and everywhere is somewhere.
New York City
Local engagement is vital to the mission of Your Hometown, with the series aspiring to visit a variety of iconic cities and towns for a deeper dive on each place as a hometown. This model is being launched through a first-season focus on New York City, and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. Many think of New York as a place where people move to in order to realize their dreams, but it is critical to remember that it is also a place where young people grow up – a series of hometowns within the larger metropolis that shape rising generations through the day-to-day texture and details of family, neighborhoods, schools, and boroughs that will become the origin stories of their lives, creativity, work, and contributions to society as a whole. That is the New York this series seeks to illuminate and reveal.