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MLK speaker: 14th Amendment central to our identity as a nation

Sherrilyn Ifill attends the Legal Defense Fund's 34th National Equal Justice Awards Dinner at Jazz At Lincoln Center on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Evan Agostini
Sherrilyn Ifill was the keynote speaker Friday at annual Illinois State University Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner.

Until recently, the average person couldn’t tell you what was in the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. But while its provisions related to insurrection have rocketed it to the center of national consciousness through challenges to Donald Trump’s candidacy, the full impact is bigger.

In fact, it’s central to our identity as a nation.

That’s the message Sherrilyn Ifill, civil rights attorney and scholar, shared with media Friday before the annual Illinois State University Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner.

“We're often having a conversation about the 14th Amendment, but we don't know we're having a conversation about the 14th Amendment,” she said. School integration. Birthright citizenship. Equal protection under the law. Even the notion of equality itself.

“Where did that come from? It's not in the first Constitution, it's in the 14th Amendment,” she said.

Ifill, the dinner’s keynote speaker, is a distinguished professor of practice at Harvard Law School. She was recently appointed to be the inaugural Vernon Jordan Endowed Chair of Civil Rights at Howard University Law School, where she plans to launch the 14th Amendment Center for Law and Democracy.

She began her career as a fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, before joining the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund [LDF], litigating voting rights cases as an assistant counsel. She then joined the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Law, teaching constitutional law and civil procedure for more than 20 years.

Ifill served as the seventh president and director-counsel of the LDF from 2013-2022. She also is a Ford Foundation Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art, where she leads a project to study the values of the 14th Amendment through art.

Ifill said the amendment transformed not just the 19th century, but the 20th century, helping spur immigration from Europe.

“All our stories about immigrants and Ellis Island and all of that are driven by the fact that America is this place where you can become a naturalized citizen, and if you are born here and your parents don't speak English and were born somewhere else, you are American,” she said.

“And those people benefited from this constitutional provision that was created for Black people.”

Given the importance of the amendment, ifill said the increase in awareness is positive. But the cause of that awareness is anything but.

“The fact that what we are seeing now is essentially an assault on voting — that voting itself has become a partisan issue which it never was — should alarm us all just as a democracy,” she said.

The MLK dinner, in the Brown Ballroom at the Bone Student Center, drew between 650 and 700 people, selling out as it does every year, said Julie Barnhill, ISU's director of Presidential and Trustee events. Ifill also met and spoke to a group of students ahead of the dinner.

This event was presented by the ISU Office of the President, University Housing Services, Office of Equity and Inclusion, the Association of Residence Halls, and the Black Student Union.

Jim Stahly Jr. is a correspondent with WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.
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