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Educator and Civil Rights Attorney Sherrilyn Ifill to Receive 2022 Radcliffe Medal

Sherrilyn Ifill speaking at 2019 rally on Brown v. Board of Education
Sherrilyn Ifill speaking at the 2019 rally at the Capitol honoring the 65th anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Photo courtesy of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

Honoring Her Work Advancing Equality and Access to Education

Author By Radcliffe Communications Published 02.25.2022 Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on LinkedIn Copy Link

Contact: Mac Daniel
Associate Director of Communications, Harvard Radcliffe Institute

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (February 25, 2022) — The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University ( today announces that the nationally renowned civil rights lawyer, scholar, and public intellectual Sherrilyn Ifill will receive the prestigious Radcliffe Medal this May 27.

Each year, during Harvard University’s Commencement week, Radcliffe awards its highest honor to an individual who embodies its commitment to excellence, inclusion, and social impact. The Radcliffe Medal was first awarded to Lena Horne in 1987. Recipients include Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Melinda French Gates, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Dolores Huerta, Toni Morrison, Sandra Day O'Connor, Gloria Steinem, and Janet Yellen.

“Sherrilyn embodies Radcliffe’s highest ideals,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Daniel P. S. Paul Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “She is an influential scholar and educator, and she is deeply engaged in the hard work of change making. As a nation, we owe a great deal to her pathbreaking leadership.”

Ifill serves as the seventh president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), guiding the storied organization founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall for nearly a decade and leading it through a period of tremendous growth and transformation.

Ifill’s long and influential career at the LDF began in 1988, when she joined the organization’s New York office as an assistant counsel. She has litigated voting rights cases, including the landmark Supreme Court case Houston Lawyers’ Association vs. Attorney General of Texas, which extended Voting Rights Act protections to elections of state trial court judges. 

A lifelong educator, Ifill also spent two decades at the University of Maryland (UMD), where she taught and mentored the next generation of civil rights lawyers as a professor of law while continuing to litigate and consult on a broad range of civil rights cases. At UMD, Ifill launched one of the first legal clinics in the nation focused on removing legal barriers to formerly incarcerated persons seeking to reenter society responsibly.

Ifill’s scholarly writing has focused on the importance of a range of civil rights issues. Her influential book On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press, 2007) is an unflinching analysis of race, racism, and American public life. Bryan Stevenson JD ’85, MPP ’85, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, in his forward to the second edition of On the Courthouse Lawn, calls Ifill “one of the most important leaders in America… at the forefront of the some of the most urgent issues facing the United States and our nation’s long struggle for racial equality.” In 2021, Ifill was recognized by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

“We are in a profound crisis of democracy born of this country’s refusal, failure, and inability to grapple with racism and white supremacy,” Ifill has said. And yet she remains optimistic about the potential for change through collective action: “Multiracial protest is a demonstration of the vitality of and desire for public life and public engagement,” she says. “Even when the courts failed, the people have asserted their unrelenting determination to be full citizens.”

On the critical importance of education, Ifill quotes Chief Justice Earl Warren, whose words in the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education ring as true in our moment as they did decades ago:

“Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. … It is the very foundation of good citizenship. … Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Register to join us on Friday, May 27, at

About the Radcliffe Day 2022 Program

Higher Education Access and the American Workforce

Access to higher education—from associate programs at community colleges to doctoral degrees offered by large universities—can be a powerful force for individual empowerment, social mobility, and equity. So it has been for many graduates. Yet this potential has never been available to all Americans, and today we are increasingly aware of the ways in which our post-secondary education system still falls short of our highest aspirations, leaving some students behind and even reinforcing longstanding inequities.

This 2022 Radcliffe Day expert panel will envision bold new ways forward by engaging the critical question of how to build an education system that is accessible and equitable to all—one that enables students of all backgrounds, interests, and abilities to secure stable livelihoods as members of a changing workforce.

Moderated by Raj Chetty ’00, PhD ’03, the panel will include Anthony P. Carnevale, Leslie Cornfeld ’81, JD ’85, Pam Eddinger, and Donna Shalala.

Following the panel discussion, Ifill will engage in a wide-ranging keynote conversation with Martha Minow EdM ’76, RI ’18, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and a former dean of Harvard Law School; Bryan Stevenson will offer a special video message; and Dean Brown-Nagin RI ’17 will formally present the 2022 Radcliffe Medal.

About the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University—also known as Harvard Radcliffe Institute—is one of the world’s leading centers for interdisciplinary exploration. We bring students, scholars, artists, and practitioners together to pursue curiosity-driven research, expand human understanding, and grapple with questions that demand insight from across disciplines. For more information, visit

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