“I Encourage Your Discomfort” University Commencement speaker Sherrilyn Ifill ’87 invokes graduates’ “bone-deep sense of obligation” to better their democracy.
he Law School was well represented at New York University’s 183rd Commencement on May 20. The occasion marked the final graduation ceremony for both Martin Lipton ’55, the outgoing chair of the University’s board of trustees, and NYU President John Sexton, a dean emeritus of NYU Law, as well as the conferring of an honorary doctorate of laws on Sherrilyn Ifill ’87,
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Harry Orr Hobbs LLM ’15 carries the banner leading the Law School processional into Yankee Stadium.
unarmed black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island; and Baltimore, as well as the ambush killing of two police officers in Brooklyn—and recalled a phrase by Thomas Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” “These in fact are the times that try men’s and women’s souls,” said Ifill. “The past nine months have challenged the very soul of our nation, such that we cannot pretend, even as we are here filled with the excitement of this day, that there are not deep challenges awaiting us.” Ifill mentioned some of the challenges: finding a job; anti-LGBT discrimination; being stopped on the street or in a car for one’s appearance alone; worrying about parents with little or no savings; the cost of college for one’s children; and increasingly stringent voter ID laws. Lingering a moment on the issue of a prison population that has reached “unsustainable and shameful proportions,” Ifill said, “You know that incarcerating two million people is a sign of American failure, not American success.” There was nothing less, she said, than a “crisis of confidence in the rule of law and in our justice system,” and it required action. “I encourage your discomfort, that you must contribute, that you must make your voice heard. That is the essence of good citizenship, that bone-deep sense of obligation that you must work to improve our democracy, and to improve it especially for those who are most marginalized and most in need.” At the end of her speech, Ifill shifted from the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal societal to the personal, revealing that she had been Defense and Educational Fund, who addressed the one of the passengers on the Amtrak train that had enthusiastic crowd at Yankee Stadium. derailed in Philadelphia only eight days before. Reading from the University’s citation, Life Finding herself walking along the tracks in a daze Trustee Ellen Schall ’72, former dean of NYU’s Rob- away from the wreckage, Ifill turned to the “favorert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, ites” listed in her cell phone: her sister, husband, called Ifill “a leading voice in the national dialogue daughters, best friends. All of them rushed to her aid. on equality and civil rights.” Sexton praised his for“I wish to not only call upon you to use this mer student as a “mentor to future generations of extraordinary education to exercise the highcivil rights activists and lawyers. You reflect est form of citizenship, to fight for justice the core values of our university as the and peace and equality in our democSee related national conversation on race and the law racy, to be excellent,” she said, “but I also photo gallery at takes on added urgency.” call upon you to just as passionately nurlaw.nyu.edu/ media2015 Ifill, speaking to the entire University ture, tend, and cherish your favorites, the a year after addressing NYU Law’s Class of 2014 at ones who, when calamity happens, will find you and surround you with their love and lead you Convocation, invoked the many challenging racial incidents of the past year—such as the deaths of out of the fog.” n Atticus Gannaway
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