Leading civil rights attorney tells KU crowd that Brown v. Board decision must be defended, better used

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Sherrilyn Ifill spoke at the University of Kansas on April 19, 2024 as part of a conference commemorating the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

In a speech at KU on Friday commemorating the 70th anniversary of the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, one of the nation’s top civil rights attorneys quoted both the law and philosophy.

But Sherrilyn Ifill, the former director and counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told members of the KU crowd that they ought to be quoting the Brown v. Board decision itself. There is a simple but powerful statement in that ruling that should roll off the tongue, she said.

“The court described education as the very foundation of citizenship,” Ifill said. “For the life of me, I don’t know why we are not saying that all the time.”

Ifill, who was the keynote speaker for a two-day national conference remembering the 1954 Brown decision, also reminded the crowd that the Supreme Court said education is the most important function of state and local government.

“In your city and state’s budget does education look like the most important function of your government?” Ifill asked, saying that if it doesn’t, communities should litigate for more funding using the Supreme Court’s own words.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Sherrilyn Ifill, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was one of many civil rights attorneys and educators from across the country who attended a Brown v. Board 70th anniversary conference on April 19, 2024. The conference was held at the University of Kansas and also included a tour of the national historic park in Topeka.

Both the University of Kansas and the National Park Service — which operates the historic site in Topeka, home to the school district at the heart of the decision — hosted the conference that looked back on the meaning of the ruling that made it illegal for districts to have separate schools for Black and white children.

Ifill, who currently is chair of civil rights in the Howard Law School, said that Brown’s meaning is often understated.

“The beginning of the end of legal apartheid in this country is important, and that’s what the Brown anniversary represents,” Ifill said. “That’s huge. We should recognize every day, not just today, that each of us owe a huge debt to Brown.”

She said that some people attend universities today that they couldn’t have 70 years ago, some live in neighborhoods that they couldn’t have 70 years ago, and others are married to people whom they couldn’t have married 70 years ago. But even that, she said, doesn’t fully capture the importance of the Brown decision.

“It is a case about the meaning of American identity,” she said.

Ifill told the crowd that she believes the current Supreme Court is “manifestly dangerous and hostile to Brown.” She said she’s worried the court and others want to “hollow out” the ruling, and “pervert its meaning to use to their own ends.”

Ifill is in the process of launching the 14th Amendment Center for Law and Democracy at Howard, and is a champion for everybody from law students to ordinary citizens learning more about the post-Civil War amendment that guarantees equal protection under the law. The amendment was a foundation of the Brown decision.

The amendment’s third section recently gained national attention as it was unsuccessfully used to try to keep former President Donald Trump off presidential primary ballots under the theory that the amendment defined him as an insurrectionist and thus disqualified him from holding office. Ifill said she was “so distressed” by the Supreme Court’s ruling that declined to disqualify Trump.

“Framers of the 14th Amendment are the only other members of Congress, only other people in our history to have faced down insurrection,” she said. “They knew what they were doing. They understood what the danger was. They were charged with stitching together a divided, broken country. Maybe we should be less arrogant and be more deferential to their understanding of what is necessary.”

Ifill also briefly drew attention to an even less used part of the 14th Amendment, Section 2, which says states shall have their representation in Congress reduced in proportion to the number of males of legal voting age who are denied the right to vote. (Females did not have the right to vote at the time of the amendment’s crafting.)

“We’ve never used Section 2,” Ifill said “I’m quite interested in using it now.”

Ifill’s speech at the Burge Union, in addition to serving as the keynote address of the Brown conference, also was this year’s Emily Taylor and Marilyn Stokstad Women’s Leadership Lecture at KU. In that vein, Ifill urged the crowd to focus on how it can advocate for and improve support for public education.

She said as a student in New York City, she was a product of the busing system that attempted to create greater integration. She said the 3,000-student high school she attended in New York City is still the most integrated environment of her life. She said the mix of races, ethnicities and socioeconomic categories was seen as normal by the students.

“My love of school was developed in that experience,” she said. “I know that it is possible.”

She said she’s confident greater funding can make serious progress in narrowing the achievement gap between minority and majority students. However, she also urged the crowd to not become solely focused on those traditional achievement metrics.

Those important words from the Brown case should not be forgotten.

“Most importantly we have the opportunity to create the citizens this country needs if this country is going to survive as a democracy,” she said. “On my bad days I worry we don’t have enough of them. On my good days, I know that we do.”


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