To celebrate Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s historic confirmation as the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis and other leaders recently unveiled a mural of the justice in Fifth Ward.
The 17- by 36-foot mural, painted in a mere three days by Houston artist Anat Ronen, is on Precinct One’s Youth Education Town (YET) building at Finnigan Park, across the street from Wheatly High School. The neighborhood that is home to the mural is noted for other nationally recognized African Americans, including Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland, both of whom served in Congress.
“As a big advocate of public art, I’m extremely proud that this mural honors Justice Jackson’s ascent to the highest court in the land,” Commissioner Ellis said. “Justice Jackson carries with her the legacy of brave and bold Black women – including Congresswoman Barbara Jordan – who persevered in the face of bigotry, oppression and sexism to forge the path we walk today.”
The Brown Jackson mural is not of her, alone. The faces of four other historic figures join her in the work by Ronen: the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; current Justice Sonia Sotomayor; Ruby Bridges, who as a six-year-old, was the first Black child to integrate a public school in the south; and the judiciary legend who worked with Justice Thurgood Marshall on the historic Brown V. Board of Education case, the late Judge Constance Baker Motley.
Retired Judge Vanessa Gilmore used the occasion as a teachable moment.
“Everybody knows who Thurgood Marshall is, and we know about his work on that famous case, Brown vs. the Board of Education that was supposed to lead to the integration of schools in the United States,” said Gilmore. “You know, who worked on that case with Justice Marshall? Constance Baker Motley. She doesn’t get the recognition and the credit that she deserves.”
Gilmore shared that Motley was the first African American woman to be appointed to become a federal judge, a United States district judge trial judge, just like Gilmore was. She also shared some little-known history about U.S. public school realities in the years following the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education case.
“Justice Thurgood Marshall went on to become a Supreme Court Justice, as we know. When he was off in the Supreme Court, Judge Constance Baker Motley was still in the trenches working on school desegregation cases. Even though Brown was decided in 1954, in 1960, when Ruby Bridges tried to go to a school and integrate a school in New Orleans, they were still pushing back against it, even though Brown vs. the Board of Education was the law of the land. Judge Constance Baker Motley stayed in the trenches, working on hundreds of school desegregation cases that remitted thousands of African American and minority students to be able to go to integrated schools long after Justice Marshall was on the Supreme Court of the United States,” said Gilmore.
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee declared the mural a destination site for all Houston visitors, and a place all school children should visit.
“Houston, bring your busloads of children. Make this a destination site,” said Jackson Lee. “Fifth Ward is on the map as it always has been, and always should. Now bring them to this mural. Explain to them and articulate the women of diversity and women of color. Understand the diverse beauty of Justice Sotomayor and her looks as a Hispanic, Latino woman. Understand the beauty of a little Black girl in Ruby Bridges, now a grown woman.
“Then, ‘My dear beloved role model,’ as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said, the woman who should have been the first member of the United States Supreme Court, Constance Baker Motley, who stood in the courtroom as an advocate when our voices could not speak in the Supreme Court, eloquently fighting and ultimately going to the Second Circuit. And of course, Justice Bader Ginsburg. Ruth RBG, just like KBJ, did not have any open doors when she graduated. A Jewish woman told to sit down, where’s your husband, take care of your children. Perseverance. So, I proclaim this place, both holy and sacred. This a landmark destination for all of those who come to Houston for conventions. I want HISD and Aldine and Klein and Spring to bring children here on school trips. Let them understand this historic moment.”
After giving attendees a history lesson on the courage and contributions of Bridges, Congressman Al Green reflected on Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing.
“I too was there at the hearing, and I will tell you I had tears to well in my eyes, as I sat there and I saw her as she was being grilled,” said Green. “She was having to confront issues that were unrelated to her competency and her urge to serve. And the only question that we could possibly ask ourselves as this form of political torture was taking place was, if not her, who? [Graduated from] Harvard twice? With honors? Law Review? That’s the standard that was set by others, not by me. I don’t think you have to go to Harvard, by the way, to get a good education. I think you can get a pretty good education at Texas Southern University. But she followed the rules that were established by the establishment. She dotted all the “I’s” and crossed all the “t’s.” If not her, who?
Green said he hopes to be present this fall when Brown Jackson officially takes her oath of office, adding that she has earned the right to be in that role.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo reflected on the example set by Brown Jackson and the others in the mural.
“When President Biden appointed now Justice Brown Jackson to the Supreme court, he didn’t just appoint the first African American woman to the Supreme Court, he also appointed a woman with more experience than four other Supreme Court Justices,” said Hidalgo. “He appointed the first public defender to the Supreme Court.
“Behind each of these women is incredible talent, incredible experience, incredible power that they’re using, and they have used as an example, and in leadership. And that reminds us that those glass ceilings are not done breaking. And perhaps it’s unfortunate. We should have broken these barriers a long time ago, but the truth of the matter is too many remain to be broken. And that should be a call to action. I’ll tell you guys, it keeps me going, and particularly, the example that Justice Brown Jackson sets for us.”
Other speakers included state representatives Harold Dutton and Ron Reynolds, along with dean of TSU’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Dr. Joan Bullock.
A self-taught artist, Ronen has created hundreds of pieces of art in the United States and around the world. She has paintings throughout the greater Houston area, including a 200- by 18-foot mural at Blackshear Elementary in Third Ward.
Commissioner Ellis said the Precinct is extremely honored that Ronen painted the Justice Jackson mural to permanently record that historic moment.
“We want residents of Fifth Ward and other communities to recognize that Justice Jackson’s seat on the Supreme Court comes at a pivotal moment in history,” said Ellis. “It comes at a time when we are facing unprecedented, coordinated attempts to roll back the rights won by those who sacrificed and struggled before us. Her confirmation breathes life into making real the constitutional promise of freedom, opportunity and justice for all people.”