Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson called on Friday to acknowledge some of the most heinous facts in its history as she addressed the nation’s raging discussions over racism and violence against Black Americans.
Justice Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the nation’s highest court, said in a speech from the pulpit of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that she came to Alabama “to commemorate and mourn, celebrate — and warn.”
She was the main speaker at the 60th anniversary of a Ku Klux Klan bombing that murdered four young girls as they came for Sunday morning worship at the church.
“We cannot allow concerns about discomfort to supplant knowledge, truth, or history if we are to continue to move forward as a nation,” Justice Jackson told an audience of hundreds.
“It is true that certain aspects of our country’s history are difficult to contemplate. I understand how tough it is to recall and endure tragedies like the one we are commemorating today. But I also know that forgetting them is harmful.”
“We must not forget because the most difficult lessons are often the ones that teach us the most about ourselves,” she adds. “We cannot forget because we cannot learn from mistakes we are unaware of.”
The remarks by Justice Jackson were an unusual occurrence. The present justices of the court seldom appear in public, and when they do, it is usually to teach at law schools or other academic contexts.
Although many of the justices have appeared at judicial conferences and spoken at college commencements, only two have made notable appearances at civil-rights-related events: Justice Jackson’s predecessor, Justice Stephen Breyer, and Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black man to serve on the court.
Justice Jackson’s remarks to the church were an unmistakable reference to her historical role and the country’s continuing fight for racial justice. Republicans who reject the teaching of slavery and racism as part of the nation’s past regularly questioned her during her confirmation hearings last year.
Ms Jackson recognized her “exhausting” road to the Supreme Court in her speech, which she said was one of the reasons she accepted the offer to make the keynote message at the event.
“I come with the understanding that I did not achieve these professional heights on my own, that people of all races, people of courage and conviction paved the way for me in the aftermath of the horrible tragedy that took the lives of those four little girls inside this sacred space,” she said.
“I have come to Alabama with a grateful heart, because unlike those four little girls, I have lived with the sole responsibility of serving our great nation.”
In many ways, Ms. Jackson’s statement exemplified something that has always been emphasized about her appointment: her voice as the first Black female Supreme Court Justice may be as powerful as her votes.
The address comes less than three months after the Supreme Court declared race-conscious college admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina illegal, reversing decades of precedent.
Ms. Jackson’s nomination was never anticipated to influence the majority-conservative court’s decisions, and she recused herself from the Harvard case due to a conflict of interest in sitting on governing boards at her alma institution.
In vehement dissents, Ms. Jackson slammed the court’s assertion that America had successfully entered a post-racial period.
“Today, the majority pulls the rip cord and declares ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat,” she stated in her dissent in the University of North Carolina case. “However, just because race is irrelevant in law does not mean it is irrelevant in life.”
In her objection to the ruling, she took on the court’s only other Black member, Justice Clarence Thomas, who has long criticized affirmative action.
When the ruling was announced, Justice Thomas declared from the bench that the nation had progressed beyond the fights of the 1950s and 1960s for equal access to schools for Black Americans. “This is not 1958 or 1968,” he said. “Today’s youth do not bear the moral debts of their forefathers.”
In her speech in Birmingham, Justice Jackson described how her parents taught her about the racial violence that occurred during the civil rights struggle, including how Martin Luther King Jr. had sat in a Birmingham jail just months before eulogizing the four little girls at a funeral attended by an estimated 4,000 people, many of whom spilt into the street outside the church’s front door.
“My parents felt it was important to introduce me to those uncomfortable topics for a reason, and it was not to make me feel like a victim or crush my spirits,” Justice Jackson said.
“On the contrary, my parents recognized that I needed to know those hard truths to broaden my horizons.” They realized that we can only know where and where we are going if we understand where we have been.”
The church bells tolled four times before Ms Jackson approached the platform, indicating the minute the bomb detonated, killing the four girls — Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley, all 14.
“They had the potential to break down barriers.” They may have broken barriers, grown up to be physicians, attorneys, or justices nominated to the highest court in our nation,” Justice Jackson added.
Sarah Collins Rudolph, who lost her sister, Addie Mae, friends, and one eye in the bombing, sat in the crowd. The church also tolled two additional bells in memory of Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, who were slain in the aftermath of the bombs.
Just days before the explosion, Alabama Gov. George Wallace reportedly said that “nowhere in the South wanted integration,” and that what was required instead were “a few first-class funerals.”
“Yes, learning about our country’s history can be painful,” Justice Jackson added, “but history is also our best teacher.” “Yes, our history is rife with too much violence, hatred, and prejudice.” But can we honestly declare that we are not dealing with the same horrors now?”