Civil Rights Lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill Speaks on the Power of Making Your Voice Heard During DREAM Week Keynote


Social Justice Bluhm Legal Clinic Events Faculty Visitors

Northwestern University and Northwestern Pritzker School of Law hosted its annual DREAM Week, commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Held on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses, the multi-day celebration included several panels and concluded in the keynote address by Sherrilyn Ifill, law professor and former president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“Dream Week at Northwestern University provides us with an opportunity to recognize the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and have conversations about how we continue the struggle for equality and social justice,” Associate Dean of the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Engagement Michael Burns said. “It’s important that we continue not only to dream, but do the difficult work of fighting for, and protecting, civil rights.”

During her speech, Ifill spoke on voter suppression, racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, and her decades-long fight for racial justice. After her remarks, Sheila Bedi, clinical professor of law and director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at Northwestern Pritzker Law, moderated a discussion. “To be a civil rights lawyer, to be an activist, means that you meet America always in its flawed spaces,” Ifill said. “We see the worst of it. We see what lies past the shouts of ‘USA,’ past the dreamy language about who we are, we see what happens in the lives of those who are most marginalized, and the way in which this country can call itself one thing and be quite another. To be a civil rights lawyer is to suspend disbelief.”

As she reflected on the theme of the week, Ifill stated that Dr. King’s most famous speech is often taken out of context and used for malicious intent. “I don’t enjoy embracing the description of MLK Day or the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. in the context of his dream,” she said. “The ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, while being one of the greatest orations in American history, has been so distorted by so many people who clearly do not hold to the beliefs of Dr. King, and most certainly would have resisted him if they had been alive and in power when he was at his peak.”

As she described the full work of Dr. King and the community work since, Ifill left the auditorium with a message of encouragement. The work of activists, everyday people, and lawyers like herself are changing the conversation around racial liberation in the United States, and the opposition is scared. “You have to dream of the thing you want. You have to keep bringing yourself back to the belief that this thing you’re fighting for is worth fighting for,” she said. “They want you to exhaust yourself and give up. They want you to believe that it can’t happen. They want you to become cynical. They want you to throw in the towel. Everything they’re doing is a response to our show of power.”

From left: Dean Hari Osofsky; Atiba Ellis, tenured professor at Case Western University School of Law; Michael Burns, associate dean of the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Engagement at Northestern Pritzker Law

During the week, the Law School hosted “The Right to Vote and the Enduring Civil Rights Struggle” with Atiba Ellis, tenured professor at Case Western University School of Law. The nationally recognized scholar on race, voting rights, and election law spoke on the ongoing fight for democracy and what democracy could mean in the multiracial America of the 21st century. “Voting rights are about human dignity and about equal citizenship. Whether we see each other, American citizens, as equal,” he said. “To paraphrase King, we are all not only God’s children, but we all should welcome each other into the moral and political community. Until that happens, we will continue to have this struggle.”

Ellis drew connections between the voter intimidation of the past and how it persists today. Since the days of reconstruction, this has been an issue, he said. “That cycle of voter suppression, from [fraud] rhetoric, to legal intimidation, to violence, is repeated again and again in American history.” But Ellis left the room with a glimmer of hope. “It feels bleak, but there’s hope,” he said. “If we use our skills and our knowledge to create the community that we seek, to be the citizens that all Americans ought to be, that hope can transform the country.”

The University-wide event also included the annual Chicago Campus Oratorical Contest, hosted by the Law School. Entrants wrote essays inspired by the quote, “In this juncture of our nation’s history, there is an urgent need for dedicated and courageous leadership,” which Dr. King said during his “Give Us the Ballot” address at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 1957. Both students and staff on the Chicago campus were welcomed to participate. In the student category, the winning essay was from Joyce Ohiri, Ph.D. candidate from Feinberg School of Medicine. Jasmin Guerrier (JD ’24) and Nick Elliot (JD ’25) won second and third place respectively. In the staff category, Caitlyn Dang, research technologist at Northwestern University, won first place. Alexandre Carvalho, doctor at Feinberg, and Federica Sidoti, senior clinical operations manager at Kellogg School of Management, won second and third place.  

“We are grateful to the University’s Dream Week Commemoration Committee, with special thanks to Associate Dean Mike Burns, for developing these events and projects,” Dean Hari Osofsky said. “As lawyers and legal professionals, we have a responsibility to continue to build upon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s important work to advance justice and equality. We have much work to do and I look forward to our continued work together to honor his legacy and make a difference.”

Other Chicago campus programming included a screening of Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, a PBS documentary series that examines the last five decades of African American history through the eyes of Henry Louis Gates Jr. After the viewing, Burns lead a discussion on the future of Black America.

The week of events was jointly sponsored by Northwestern University’s Office of Institutional Diversity & Inclusion; Northwestern Pritzker Law’s Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Engagement; Northwestern Law’s American Constitution Society (ACS); Northwestern Law’s Election Law Association (ELA); and Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion.

Learn more about DREAM Week and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.