Ketanji Brown Jackson Follows in the Footsteps of Thurgood Marshall
By D. Kevin McNeir
African-Americans, women in particular, joined in celebrations across the nation on Monday, October 3, as Ketanji Brown Jackson, previously a U.S. circuit judge, became the first Black woman and the first former federal public defender to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jackson’s historic “first” would come almost 55 years to the day when Thurgood Marshall, the chief counsel for the NAACP in the 1940s and ‘50s and the architect of the legal strategy that ended the era of official racial segregation, became the first Black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 2, 1967.
Marshall would retire 24 years later due to health reasons, leaving a stellar legacy of upholding the rights of the individual as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
But for Jackson, 52, who succeeded Associate Justice Stephen Breyer upon his retirement from the Court on June 30, 2022, and for whom she once served as a clerk during the formative years of her legal career, shattering a ceiling that existed for 233 years appears to be an historic first which all Americans, regardless of race or gender, can celebrate.
And while few will ever forget the impact that the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had in the centuries-old battle for equality under the law, Jackson can lean on the shoulders of three other women who currently serve on the Court: Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
It should be noted that with Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, the second Black man appointed to the Supreme Court, continuing to serve, white men no longer represent a majority on the Court.
The newest associate justice shared her feelings on September 30 when the Supreme Court held a special sitting for her formal investiture ceremony, welcoming Ketanji Brown Jackson as the 104th Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
“As I undertake the role of associate justice, I will no doubt have my share of pure bad luck, promoters and detractors but with your support and God’s grace, through it all, I will keep moving,” she said. “I have a seat at the table now and I am truly grateful.”
Brown, who joins the Court with several consequential cases on the docket including the fate of affirmative action in college admissions and voting rights, said unequivocally, “I’m ready to work.”
“People from all walks of life approach me with a profound sense of pride and renewed ownership,” Jackson observed. “I can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices – as if to say look at what we’ve done. This is what we can accomplish if we put our minds to it.”
“They’re calling on the ancestors, harkening back to history and claiming their stake at last. They’re saying in essence, ‘You go girl.’ They’re saying, ‘invisible no more.’ We see you and we’re with you,” she said.
One of the many celebratory events held on Jackson’s first official day on the Court took place in Northwest D.C. in a former all-Black YMCA, now an historically-designated building where Marshall once met with other members of his legal team in crafting briefs that would lead to the demise of official racial segregation.
Marshall’s mission and legacy remain alive and well with the Thurgood Marshall Center Trust (TMCT), Inc., led by President/CEO Thomasina W. Yearwood.
Yearwood said she’s confident that all Americans will benefit as Jackson becomes the newest member of and voice on the Supreme Court.
“She [Jackson] has already shown America that she’s determined to use her position to move her colleagues to examine, consider and give voice to longstanding issues and concerns – some of which have been colored by injustice,” Yearwood said. “As Americans, specifically African Americans, we need to finally be treated as if justice were truly blind. The rule of law still is not enforced the same for all people and often the differences come with one’s race, economic background, education or because of their ancestry and linkage to past generations.”
“So, while Blacks have achieved certain positions of power that were unheard of 100 years ago, much less 400 years ago, until we are viewed and treated as individuals equal to and considered the same as whites, and with equivalent power, our ‘power’ remains limited – sometimes close to nonexistent,” Yearwood noted.
Jan Parkman, a resident in Southeast D.C., said she’s confident that Jackson will quickly show that she’s “better than anyone on the bench.”
“I listened closely during the confirmation hearings and witnessed her strength, courage and perseverance,” said Parkman who attended the celebration at the TMCT.
“She has the kind of life experiences that no one has had on the Supreme Court before,” she said. “And she explained that and more in the midst of ignorance and failed attempts at showmanship – even hatred – that came from our own U.S. senators. That was just mind-blowing.”
“I was proud to see U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) lift her up – like Black men do for sisters. And I was so proud to see her smile, anyhow,” she said.
Antoinette Barksdale, a civil rights attorney who resides in Northwest D.C., said the addition of Jackson to the Supreme Court has given her a newfound sense of hope.
“Having a Black woman on the Court – that’s something that’s long overdue,” Barksdale said. “But what encourages me the most is the impact Justice Jackson will have on American democracy. The next generation can be hopeful and aspire for similar, if not even greater, achievements.”
Candace Jenkins, an attorney who has worked as a department administrator for the Wayne County (Michigan) Juvenile Court, said she looks forward to seeing Jackson in action.
“I am delighted that [Jackson] managed to evade all of the naysayers and those who were not feeling having a Black woman, or another person of color, on the Supreme Court,” said Jenkins, a graduate of the University of Michigan (‘82) and Howard University School of Law (‘85).
“If you paid attention to the hearings, she was articulate and poised and never went into attack or defense mode,” Jenkins said. “She answered questions carefully but I also believe she answered honestly.”
“She serves as a powerful example for youth, particularly young girls of color, to follow. The leaders of tomorrow can actually believe that their dreams can come true – even if they have a dream that no one believes in but them.”
Jenkins said, “Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is not only a ceiling breaker –she’s a ceiling crasher.”