Sherrilyn Ifill talks recent civil rights movements as keynote speaker for MLK Dream Week


Lexi Goldstein/The Daily Northwestern

Sherrilyn Ifill received multiple standing ovations during her speech in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

Lexi Goldstein, Assistant Campus Editor

Content warning: This story contains mentions of police violence. 

Civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill reflected on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as the keynote speaker for Northwestern’s Dream Week in front of a packed audience in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. 

The event concluded the week commemorating Dr. King and was kicked off by a performance of the Black National Anthem by Soul4Real, NU’s premiere Black a cappella group. 

Former president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Ifill said dreaming is not enough and that putting in work is necessary. 

“I just think it’s important that we remember that dreaming is also work,” Ifill said during the keynote. “When we listen to his speech, we don’t allow ourselves to be carried away into flights of fantasy, that we give due honor for the kind of metal it took for Dr. King to draw from himself that poetry.”

Ifill’s talk covered how the civil rights movement has evolved in recent years, with global protests following the torture and murder of George Floyd. 

She noted that people of all ethnicities, ages and parts of the country participated in Black Lives Matter marches, demonstrating an expansion of civil rights marches in the ‘60s. 

“They want you to give away your compassion and your love and it takes work not to do it,” Ifill said during the event. “It took work to get both feet on the floor the day after the November election in 2016. It took work after Charleston. It took work after the Tree of Life and Walmart.”

After Ifill’s speech, director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at Pritzker School of Law Sheila Bedi joined her on stage for a conversation. 

They discussed topics like police brutality, law enforcement reform and availability of public services. 

“Sherrilyn Ifill and Professor Sheila Bedi together prove to be a tour de force in centering us on not only the history of civil rights but our current responsibility around anti-racism,” Robin R. Means Coleman, vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion, said.

Ifill, who was named one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People of 2021 and one of the publication’s Women of the Year in 2022, said that no one gets to sit out in the movement for progress. 

She said the phrase “influencer” implies a monetized presence on social media, but that she wants to challenge that definition. 

“I absolutely want to be an influencer,” Ifill told The Daily. “I want to be an influencer for the causes that I believe in. I want to be an influencer for equality and justice for a new vision of what law and justice can mean in this country.”

Ifill said people need to bring their specialties to the table to add to an ecosystem of change. 

This sentiment resonated with Research Projects Associate Yael Mayer, who attended the keynote.

“I found it powerful in the sense that you don’t have to have (Ifill’s) type of job to be making changes … in the spaces that you influence,” Mayer said.

Ifill’s speech reminded her of Reverend Al Sharpton’s quote on MLK Day, stating that it is not a day of rest but rather a day of action.

University President Michael Schill also attended the event and said he greatly enjoyed the talk.

“I’m a lawyer, so I sort of know a lot of the law, but it was the personal side of it,” Schill said. “It was … the view from the inside of someone striving for racial justice.”

Ifill told The Daily that accurately understanding the moment allows people to understand their opportunities and challenges they face.

She said being active in community initiatives and voting is important but so is believing in the ability to create change. 

“To do civil rights work you have to call people into something beyond what they see, you know,” Ifill said to The Daily. “The facts are important, but they’re not what motivates you.”

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