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Civil Rights Advocate Says It’s Time For A New Brown Strategy

Sherrilyn Ifill participates in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013.
afagen via Flickr

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, had planned to discuss the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision during her trip to St. Louis. That changed after Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson.

“I still intend to talk about Brown versus Board of Education, and actually St. Louis played a pretty big role in leading us to that important case,” Ifill said. “But of course with the events in Ferguson, I altered my message a little bit to talk about what Brown means in light of what we saw in Ferguson. Ultimately, the message is about the need for a new Brown strategy — a Mike Brown strategy.”

Before Brown was killed, Ifill said the Legal Defense Fund was already focused on structural change and accountability.

“You have to remember, we were three weeks from the killing of Eric Garner who, all over America people saw, was choked to death by police officers in Staten Island, New York,” Ifill said. “Frankly, the Eric Garner case had touched such a nerve that we kind of reached the point of saying there has to be a structural solution to this problem.”

That solution may very well come down to money.

“We believe that there is a funding stream that can change policing,” Ifill said. The federal government awards grants to state and local police jurisdiction in every state. The Legal Defense Fund wants to see those grants tied to training, including how to de-escalate violent situations, how to identify and deal with the mentally ill, implicit and explicit bias, and incentives and rewards for officers who do not discharge their weapon or use violence to resolve a situation. Ifill also said national databases need to be established to count police shootings and police killings.

“We need to encourage police departments through our funding system to do things different and to recognize the ongoing issue of racial bias,” Ifill said. “It won’t be quick. Culture is something that is deeply embedded; it’ll take some time. But it can be done.

“I think we sometime don’t recognize how very brief a time we’ve been at this,” she said. “When we look at this year and we recognize it has been 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, and that’s the case that at least begins to end legal apartheid in this country, so we’ve really only been at this, at the true project for equality, for 60 years. I think that sometimes we forget that, and it makes us impatient. But in fact we have a long way to go.”

Ifill also encourages that impatience, especially from young leaders.

“I never stand in the way of young people doing what they’re supposed to do, which is agitate, which is be impatient, which is to demand that it be different, which is to shame us,” Ifill said.  

Ifill credits social media with bringing Brown’s death and events in Ferguson to the attention of mainstream media.

“This really played out in the first days on social media. If you weren’t on social media, you didn’t know what was happening,” she said. “Mainstream media is not in control of its own destiny anymore, and that’s a good thing.”

Related Events

"From Brown to Ferguson: The Unfinished Business of Civil Rights"

  • When: Noon Sept. 17, 2014
  • Where: Anheuser-Busch Hall's Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom on the Danforth Campus, Washington University, St. Louis
  • More information

"From Brown to Ferguson: The Unfinished Business of Civil Rights"

  • When: 7 p.m. Sept. 17, 2014
  • Where: Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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