Afro American News

Civil Rights Attorney Asked to Surrender Her Amtrak Seat

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
[email protected]

When the secretary for the Montgomery, Alabama chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an effort that changed the trajectory and pace of the Civil Rights Movement in America.  Almost 65 years later, on the weekend that celebrated the life and work of Dr. King, President and Director-Council for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) Sherrilyn Ifill was asked to give up her seat on an Amtrak train.

In this ironic testament of the advancements made in America, or lack thereof, Ifill took to Twitter as a form of protest and a means for answers on her unfair treatment.

“Amtrak I’m being asked to leave my seat on train 80 which I just boarded in D.C.  There are no assigned seats on this train. The conductor has asked me to leave my seat because she has ‘other people coming who she wants to give this seat.’ Can you please explain,” she tweeted on the evening of Jan. 17.

President and Director-Council for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Sherrilyn Ifill was asked to give up her seat on an Amtrak train the Friday of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. (Courtesy Photo)

The civil rights attorney prefaced any further complaint about the Amtrak incident with an honest expression of appreciation for the rail company.

“I will preface this by saying I love Amtrak. I am a regular customer. I returned to Amtrak even after suffering a concussion and broken collarbone in the Philadelphia derailment of 188 in 2015. So this incident will not sour me on using this [important] public rail,” the Civil Rights attorney said.

Despite her love for the train, Ifill felt the particular incident called for further action- far beyond a tweet.

“I left the train at Baltimore and called over the lead conductor and the agent/conductor who attempted to remove me from my seat. I laid it out. She [now] said ‘she wanted to keep empty seats at the front.’ Me: oh so there were no ‘special passengers,’” she wrote.

For those that are unfamiliar with the phrase, if a Black woman says she has “laid” anything or anyone out, something or someone should be afraid- very afraid.  Laying someone out involves a full description as to why some behavior or action was inappropriate, often equipped with facts, receipts, big words and a tone that means business.  Following the “lay out,” tradition, Ifill took to Twitter to share how she began the process of setting Amtrak straight.

“I laid out the facts and made clear that I know [that] it is absolutely contrary to policy and unacceptable to pick one passenger from an unassigned seat and demand she move. Lead conductor (man) just has his mouth open. The woman agent/conductor now drops her head,” she wrote.

By the end of her seven-tweet thread on the incident, the situation was not fully resolved and Ifill made it clear that the battle was far from over.

“She is looking frankly, unwell. I will deal officially with Amtrak on Monday, which, up to this moment still has not [direct messaged] me or responded. So, that’s actually my concern at this point,” she wrote. “What really disturbs me is how someone with this authority can just entirely make up something so ridiculous and approach a customer in this way. I did wonder when she was carrying on – how far will I take this? And the immediate answer in my mind was ‘all the way.’”

In the spirit of Parks and Dr. King, Ifill took it “all the way,” to Amtrak’s leaders who have offered several apologies since the incident occurred.

Saturday afternoon, following the Friday evening uprooting, Amtrak tweeted, “We sincerely apologize for the miscommunication and inconvenience and are investigating.”

Amtrak told CNN that the company attempted to contact Ifill to no avail on Friday, and admitted that they should have apologized sooner..

“We should have responded publicly sooner, and we apologized for the incident and our slow response,” Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams told CNN. “Amtrak is looking into the matter more closely so that we can prevent situations like this going forward.”

Amtrak emphasized how the incident could serve as a lesson for the train company.

“This has been a lesson for us. As of today, we’re changing our policy about how we respond on social media to ensure we’re faster and more transparent,” the company tweeted in its original online apology.

While Ifill said she was “colossally disappointed” about the incident and how Amtrak handled the situation, she also took a moment to note the irony of her negative Amtrak experience happening on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.  

“It is #MLK weekend – a sacred time for me. The President is stoking up a dangerous situation in [Virginia] where the [Governor] has declared a state of emergency and where racial violence turned deadly several years ago. And we have many battles to fight. Voter suppression first and foremost,” Ifill wrote on Twitter.

She encouraged others to honor Dr. King’s legacy by continuing the social justice fight.

“Keep fighting and honor #MLK this weekend. It’s about our individual dignity, the strength of our communities, and the integrity of our democracy,” the NAACP LDF president tweeted.


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