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Civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill will headline MLK Commemoration

Northwestern commemorates Dr. King’s legacy with Dream Week Jan. 16 to 23
Sherrilyn Ifill
Sherrilyn Ifill is a “prolific scholar, impactful educator and a relentless advocate for racial justice. She is one of our country’s most influential leaders regarding national civil rights and equality,” said Robin R. Means Coleman, vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion.

Scholar, author and civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill will headline Northwestern University’s 2023 MLK Dream Week with a keynote conversation at 5 p.m., Monday, Jan. 23 at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. The keynote event is free and open to the public. Reservations are required.

Ifill will share brief remarks about her decades-long legal fight for racial justice as a lawyer and president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) that has tackled issues ranging from voter suppression to racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Following her remarks, Ifill will participate in a moderated discussion with Sheila Bedi, clinical professor of law and director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

“We are tremendously honored and excited to have Sherrilyn Ifill, one of this nation’s greatest legal minds and civil and human rights change-agents, join us as this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Dream Week keynote speaker,” said Robin R. Means Coleman, vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion. “Professor Ifill is a prolific scholar, impactful educator and a relentless advocate for racial justice. She is one of our country’s most influential leaders regarding national civil rights and equality.”

Dream Week is a cross-collaboration with Northwestern’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion. Additional Dream Week events include the candlelight vigil, an oratorical contest and film screenings. The Dream Week 2023 schedule and registration links are available on Northwestern’s MLK website.

A rich career dedicated to civil rights and democracy

A familiar presence in the media, Sherrilyn Ifill has been interviewed on topics of voting rights, civil rights and democracy. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s Women of the Year in 2022 and TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021.

Ifill began her legal career in 1988 as an assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), where she litigated and won Houston Lawyer’s Association v. Attorney General of Texas, a pivotal case, upheld by the Supreme Court, that ensured Black and Latino Texans were protected against discriminatory voting practices across all elections.

After 20 years teaching law at University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, she returned to the LDF as president and director-counsel in 2013, a tumultuous period in civil rights that was marked by a national uptick in legal efforts to suppress the vote, including the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision.

Before stepping down from its leadership in spring of 2022, Ifill oversaw legal campaigns to protect voting rights, including a lawsuit against the United States Postal Service over planned mail shutdowns ahead of the 2020 election, and a lawsuit on behalf of peaceful protestors marching to the polls in Alamance County, North Carolina, as well as three lawsuits opposing voter suppression laws in Florida, Georgia and Texas.

A scholar and author, Ifill’s 2007 book “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” is a guide for communities to confront the legacy of lynching through restorative justice and reparations that is widely credited with laying the foundation for contemporary discussion around lynching and reconciliation.

Professional honors include the 2021 Spirit of Excellence Award from the American Bar Association and Attorney of the Year by The American Lawyer. In 2022, Ifill received the prestigious Brandeis Medal, named for Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, and the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award.

Ifill’s keynote conversation concludes a week of Dream Week programming on the Chicago and Evanston campuses. Many events are open to the public. For more information and reservation links, visit Northwestern’s MLK website.

2023 Dream Week programming

Evanston campus

MLK Candlelight Vigil
Hosted by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, incorporated Alpha Mu Chapter
Monday, Jan. 16, 3 p.m.
Alice Millar Chapel, 1870 Sheridan Road
Livestream available on the MLK website

Hosted annually since 1980 by Northwestern’s Alpha Mu Chapter of King’s fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, the 2023 Candlelight Vigil will be given by Rev. Dr. Michael C. R. Nabors, pastor of Evanston’s historic Second Baptist Church. This event is free and open to the public. A free will donation to the March of Dimes will be collected.

Eva Jefferson Day
Monday, Jan. 16

A full day program of arts and discussion on the legacy of Dr. King led by Northwestern students for Evanston Family Focus students.

Film Screening: “A Most Beautiful Thing”
Thursday, Jan. 19, 6:15 p.m.
Lutkin Hall, 700 University Place

The Personal Development StudioLab at the McCormick School of Engineering hosts a screening of the award-winning documentary “A Most Beautiful Thing.” Produced and narrated by Common, the award winning film tells the story of Arshay Cooper and his quest to found the first all-Black high school rowing team in the U.S. on Chicago’s West Side. Cooper will participate in a talkback after the screening. The event is free and open to the public. Open to all Northwestern students and staff. Reservations are not required.

MLK Keynote Conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill
Monday, Jan. 23, 5 p.m.
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall
50 Arts Circle Drive
Livestream available on the MLK website

Chicago campus

Film Screening: “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise”
Wednesday, Jan. 18, 12 p.m.
Pritzker School of Law, Rubloff Building, Room 150
375 E. Chicago Ave.
RSVP online

This documentary series looks at the last five decades of African American history through the eyes of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. After viewing a segment of the series, Michael Burns, Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Engagement at the Pritzker School of Law, will lead a discussion on the future of Black America. Lunch will be provided.

Discussion: “The Right to Vote and the Enduring Civil Rights Struggle”
Thursday, Jan. 19, 12 p.m.
Pritzker School of Law, Strawn Hall (MC 195)
375 E. Chicago Ave.
RSVP online

Atiba Ellis, a tenured professor at Case Western University School of Law, and a nationally recognized scholar on matters of race, voting rights and election law will discuss the civil rights legacy celebrated on the Martin Luther King Jr., holiday. From the campaigns of Frederick Douglass to the 1960s’ civil rights protests, to the struggles around election integrity today, the conversation will reflect on the legacy of the contested right to vote and what democracy could mean in the multiracial America of the 21st century. Lunch will be provided. Reservations are requested.

MLK Oratorical Contest
Friday, Jan. 20, 12 p.m.
Watch on Zoom

Northwestern Chicago campus students and staff are invited to participate in the 2023 oratorical contest, by preparing a speech on King’s “Give Us the Ballot” address delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C., in 1957. The top three finishers in the staff and student categories will be awarded prizes ranging from $150 - $300.

Submissions are due by noon on Jan. 16. Contact for submission guidelines. Finalists will deliver their speeches in a virtual event Jan. 20.

Viewing Party: Keynote event with Sherrilyn Ifill
Monday, Jan. 23, 5 p.m.
Pritzker School of Law, Room RB 150
RSVP online

The 2023 Dream Week keynote event will feature Sherrilyn Ifill, who is a law professor and former president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and a nationally recognized expert on voting rights and judicial selection. The event will be streamed live from the Evanston campus. The Chicago Campus viewing is open to all Northwestern students, faculty and staff. Dinner will be provided, and reservations are required.

For Journalists: view the news release for media contacts and assets