CNN —  

Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, says communities “locked and frozen” in racist histories need to talk before those conversations can happen at the national level.

“I think we very often talk about wanting to have a national conversation on race. And I’m not really excited about that idea,” Ifill told David Axelrod on The Axe Files, a podcast from The University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN.

“I think that race is a very difficult topic, very intense but also very local, and these local pogroms that happen in these communities, you know, very often followed by … looting or burning down of the black part of town … that kind of set the relationship between blacks and whites in those towns,” she said.

“These communities were almost locked and frozen from those events into a certain kind of choreography of how they dealt with each other. … I think those communities need to really, themselves, grapple with their own history and confront that history and recognize that history.”

Ifill, who taught for 20 years at the University of Maryland Law School, is excited by young lawyers and activists who “challenge the orthodoxy.”

Here are three times she challenged the orthodoxy herself:

1. Her fight for voting rights

“African-American voters in Harris County, Texas … believed that the at-large system of electing judges there denied them the ability to elect their candidates of choice to sit on the bench.”

The county was 20% African-American and 22% Latino, according to Ifill. Yet no African-American judges had ever been elected. As a young lawyer at the Legal Defense Fund in 1991, she filed the case, which went to the Supreme Court, and won, with the court deciding that elections for trial judges are covered by the Voting Rights Act.

In the 2018 midterm elections, a record 17 African-American women ran for and won judgeships in Harris County.

“I started out with this important issue and the desire of African-American voters in Harris County to be able to elect judicial candidates to office. And so, to see decades later this roster of African-American, women no less, judges elected in Harris County is super powerful for me.”

2. Speaking out against Kavanaugh and other Trump judicial nominees

Ifill was outspoken against Brett Kavanaugh leading up to his Supreme Court confirmation vote, calling the federal judiciary “critically important.”

“What I have seen with some of the Trump nominees is deeply troubling. … It’s not just that he has appointed judges who feel themselves unable to say that Brown vs. Board of Education was correctly decided. … It actually means, in my view, that you have doubts about the rule of law. The rule of law is nondiscrimination. … I take issue with those judicial nominees,” said Ifill.

“It worries me when I see nominees who don’t have the requisite experience to sit on the bench. And yet they’re being passed through.”

3. Shedding light on the truth about lynching

“I’m a New Yorker, born and raised. My understanding of lynching was that it was something that happened in the woods with kind of, very rural people. And that is not the truth.”

Ifill’s book, “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” was written to spread the truth she learned about the history of racial violence.

“Most lynchings happened downtown … the people who attended those lynchings were not people in the backwoods but they were law students, and high school students, and housekeepers, and shop owners, and pharmacists and just average people,” said Ifill.

“It was astonishing to me that wherever I went, these stories would come out. They might have happened 50 years ago, but they were very present in the understanding of African-Americans about their relationship to the white community in those towns. … It’s important to tell that story.”