The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. has a new leader, and she’s already planning to position the nation’s premier civil rights law organization to make as great a contribution to civil rights in the 21st century as it did in previous eras.

The organization’s board of directors announced this week that attorney and law professor Sherrilyn Ifill will be the LDF’s next president and director counsel. She’ll be taking a leave of absence from her post at the University of Maryland School of Law to shape LDF’s social-justice agenda in January 2012.

Perhaps best known for its role in the landmark school-desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, LDF has worked for decades to expand political participation, forestall injustice in the criminal-justice system, broaden avenues of educational opportunity, defend economic freedoms and further the nomination and appointment of fair-minded and diverse judges through impact litigation and advocacy.

“LDF changed America,” Ifill told The Root. “But too many have been left behind, and the opening of the door is getting narrower and narrower.”

We spoke to her about how she hopes to use her new role to remedy that inequality, why we can’t forget about voting rights just because the presidential election is over and her hopes for President Barack Obama’s second term.

The Root: What will be your biggest priorities and areas of focus in your new position?

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, first, I’m on a learning curve to fully understand all the work LDF is doing in communities throughout this country. But I also want to listen to what we’re hearing in those communities about the kinds of barriers to full access and opportunity that African Americans face on a day-to-day basis.

Of course there are key civil rights issues that seem to be priorities for the African-American community. There’s the continuing and ongoing issue of the protection of voting rights. The Supreme Court has decided to hear a case from Shelby County, Ala., challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act next year. LDF will be filing briefs and participating at every level in that process.

The experience of voter-suppression efforts this past year would seem to reinforce the ongoing need for the Voting Rights Act. We’ll be working to convince the court to defer to Congress’ judgment that the Voting Rights Act is still needed