For many, the historic confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is a tribute to generations of Black Americans who she said paved the way for her elevation to the nation’s highest court.
“I have now achieved something far beyond anything my grandparents could have possibly ever imagined,” Jackson said, noting they had gained only grade-school educations before starting their family and later sending their children to racially segregated schools.
“The path was cleared for me, so that I might rise to this occasion,” she said. “And in the poetic words of Dr. Maya Angelou, I do so now.”
Quoting Angelou’s famous poem, “And Still I Rise,” Jackson added: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”
Jackson, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, said that she has been lucky on her path to the high court. Although her arrival breaks one of the remaining racial barriers in American democracy, many Black Americans still struggle to surmount systemic blocks.
She namechecked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights icon, as well as Black federal judicial trailblazers such as Justice Thurgood Marshall and Judge Constance Baker Motley, thanking them for their leadership and role modeling.
“For all of the talk of this historic nomination and now confirmation, I think of them as the true path breakers,” Jackson said. “I’m just the very lucky first inheritor of the dream of liberty and justice for all.”
Making America proud
Melanie L. Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, watched Jackson’s speech from the White House lawn. With the sun shining through clouds over Washington, there was a palpable joy in the crowd over what Jackson symbolizes for the country, she said.
“It just felt like the ancestors were dancing.”
“I can see myself, in now-Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson,” Campbell added. “(Jackson) understands the significance of this moment for Black women, for women, for the nation. And it is a game changer.”
Others watching the speech also noted the diversity at the event and the image at the center — President Joe Biden flanked by the first Black female Supreme Court justice and the first Black and Asian American vice president.
Just before Vice President Kamala Harris introduced the president, she gushed over what Jackson’s confirmation will one day mean to her young, Black goddaughter.
“When I presided over the Senate confirmation vote yesterday, while I was sitting there, I drafted a note to my goddaughter,” Harris said. “I told her that I felt such a deep sense of pride and joy about what this moment means for our nation and for her future.”
Speaking directly to Jackson, Harris added: “And I will tell you, her braids are just a little longer than yours.”
Although the occasion will be noted in history books as a symbol of racial progress, Turner said Jackson’s elevation to the Supreme Court should be celebrated by Americans of all races and creeds.
“Not only should the entire Black community be proud, the entire country should be proud because this has certainly been a long time coming,” she said. “And from this victory, we certainly have an opportunity to continue to build and create more victories. We’re not done yet.”
A career of firsts
Throughout her career, Jackson has been one of just a few Black women. When she became a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in 1999, less than 2 percent of the high court’s clerks at the time were Black.
When she was appointed to be a U.S. district judge in 2013, Black women made up about 1 percent of all judges to ever sit on the federal bench.
Now, as the first Black woman to hold a Supreme Court seat, her presence is set to create the first all-women liberal wing of the court, whose dissenting opinions are expected to outline their vision for a more just country and possibly influence future Supreme Court rulings. Jackson’s position on the Supreme Court will also change the legal profession, giving Black women new representation at the highest levels.
In addition to Jackson’s title as the country’s first Black woman Supreme Court justice, she will also be the first justice in three decades with criminal defense experience. She was a federal public defender from 2005 to 2007, representing people who lacked the resources to hire an attorney. With eight years of experience in the U.S. district court, Jackson will also have more experience as a federal trial court judge than any other sitting justice.