On Saturday, as we continue to celebrate the historic confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington, D.C., the nation will also mark the 75th anniversary of the first Freedom Ride. On this Journey of Reconciliation, as it was known, civil rights activists departed D.C. on a tour through southern cities to protest segregated bus travel.
At the time, the nation was still two years away from the first Black federal appellate court judge, William H. Hastie of the Third Circuit, and two decades away from the first Black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. It would take 75 years—until now—for a Black woman to ascend to the highest court in our country. While the United States has come a long way because of the freedom rides and lunch counter sit-ins of years past, this moment in history—the breaking of this glass ceiling reminds us that our nation is only just beginning to embrace and to embody what is possible.
Of course, Jackson was not the first Black woman to serve on the federal bench. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Constance Baker Motley to a district court seat in New York. Judge Motley had a storied career as a civil rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she worked with Thurgood Marshall, represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and tackled some of the most urgent civil rights crises facing the nation—including leading litigation efforts that ultimately integrated the Universities of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and others.
Motley also wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education—a decision that transformed our nation by ending legalized segregation in our public schools. As Jackson reminded us, she and millions of others are beneficiaries of this legacy.
During her confirmation hearing, Jackson told stories about her parents attending racially segregated schools, but also noted that—when she grew up in Miami in a post-Brown world—she went to diverse, public institutions. “The fact that we had come that far was to me a testament to the hope and the promise of this country, the greatness of America, that in one generation—one generation—we could go from racially segregated schools in Florida to have me sitting here as the first Floridian ever to be nominated to the Supreme Court.”
It was because of civil rights lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley, with whom Jackson shares a birthday, that her upbringing was possible. And it was because of role models like them that allowed Jackson to dream of one day becoming a jurist and to see herself represented on the federal bench.
“I do consider myself, having been born in 1970, to be the first generation to benefit from the civil rights movement,” Jackson said, “from the legacy of all of the work of so many people that went into changing the laws in this country so that people like me could have an opportunity to be sitting here before you today.”
That is what this moment means for young people, for Black women, and for the nation today. Jackson is the justice that so many have been waiting for—not just because she reflects the rich diversity of America, but because she represents so much of what has historically been excluded from and missing on the Court.
Yes, she will be the first Black woman on the highest court in the land when she is formally sworn in. She will also be the first former public defender. She will be the second currently serving justice to have valuable experience at the trial court level. And with the retirement of Justice Breyer, for whom Jackson clerked, she will be the only sitting justice with experience on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Together, this will assist with robust and informed decision-making, will infuse additional viewpoints into deliberations, and will foster greater public trust in the judiciary. And that matters.
It also matters that Jackson, over the course of her broad and impressive legal career, has demonstrated a commitment to civil and human rights and that she already has a stellar reputation for being an outstanding, fair-minded arbiter of justice.
Three years ago, retired federal judge Ann Claire Williams, the first person of color to serve on the Seventh Circuit, reflected on the life of Motley, one of her idols. “Constance Baker Motley’s voice rang with the harmonies of liberty and justice,” she said. “Because Constance Baker Motley lifted her voice and sang, African Americans, persons of color, women—indeed, all Americans—have a voice. We are all the beneficiaries of her great civil rights and judicial legacy.”
Three years later, as the chair of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, Judge Williams reflected on the career of another Black woman jurist—Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson—as she relayed to senators the standing committee’s unanimous “Well Qualified” rating.
Though Jackson has served on the federal bench for nearly a decade, her career delivering equal justice for all is only beginning. And just like the trailblazing jurists before her, Justice Jackson’s judicial legacy will inspire generations to come.