Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s first day on the high court is Monday, and this marks exactly fifty-five years and one day after Thurgood Marshall became our country’s first African American Supreme Court justice in October of 1967.
Justice Jackson is also making history today in her own right with her arrival to the bench, as she is the first African American woman to achieve this milestone. Jackson’s appointment is a part of President Biden’s agenda to increase diversity within the federal judicial bench. To date, eight of the president’s thirteen nominations to the circuit court have been confirmed.
“Of the 143 federal judges nominated by the president, 68% are women and 66% are people of color — 31% of whom are African American. Before Biden, only eight Black women had been appointed as federal appellate judges,” the Grio reports.
Prior to and throughout Justice Jackson’s nomination process, the efforts of the Black Women’s Leadership Collective (BWLC), “an organizing hub for national Black women’s organizations, advocates, and supporters,” have been instrumental in mobilizing support. BWLC aims to use its collective efforts “to make sure our voices are heard in the halls of power, at the ballot box and in our communities…[and] collective of intergenerational, intersectional Black women leaders throughout the nation.”
Their efforts certainly came to fruition, and their statement after the Senate confirmation reflects these sentiments, “Our joy and pride as Black women has deepened throughout this process as Judge Jackson displayed her character, integrity, deep knowledge, and respect for the Constitution…Judge Jackson has shattered another glass ceiling, showing Black girls that there should be no limit to their hopes and dreams and affirming that we are all created equal.”
In conjunction with this extraordinary moment in time, ESSENCE sat down with two BWLC leaders, Bishop Leah Daughtry, Co-Convener of Power Rising, and CNN Political Commentator Karen Finney to discuss what Justice Jackson’s seat on the court means for our country, what is at stake with the November midterm elections and the political power Black women possess.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ESSENCE: Can you tell me about the significance of Justice Jackson’s first day on the court?
Finney: Frankly, it’s hard to put into words, but I’ll try. It is just a glorious step forward on our nation’s road to becoming a more just and representative country, to having justice be more reflective of who we are. It is such a testament to her brilliance, her integrity and her strength that she also begins, as not only the most qualified, but also the most popular person to take a place on the Supreme Court, and it’s a beautiful moment for our country and for everybody, and it’s particularly for Black women and young Black women, but for all Americans. All Americans should take pride in what this means for our country.
ESSENCE: Can you speak on the role of the Black woman with respect to political power?
Daughtry: The confirmation and now the investiture of Justice Jackson is really a result of Black women showing up to vote in the presidential election cycle. Our votes for President Biden and Vice President Harris, as well as our votes in Georgia, and many of the other critical states gave us the Senate, gave us the White House that nominated Judge Jackson, gave us the Senate that confirmed her, and it is a direct straight line from our turning out to vote to her confirmation. That’s why it’s important that we continue to show up for the issues that we need, and for the people that we want to see in office so that we can have more Justice Jacksons.
Finney: I think we have to look at both what has been accomplished by showing up and the things that are left to be done. We need to codify reproductive freedom, protect voting rights, do more to support our families, like childcare, reform our criminal justice system. There are a whole set of issues, many of which are laid out in terms of Black women’s concerns, and we’ve made progress on some of these things. But we’ve got more progress to make, and as Daughtry and I both just illustrated, when we show up, we make a difference. So the question is not just what is at stake when we show up, but also the power of showing up, and what that means for our lives, for the direction of the country, and beyond.
ESSENCE: Please elaborate more on why is it so critical for Black women to cast their vote in this November midterms?
Daughtry: When we look at recent history, we know that the Black woman’s vote is one of the largest if not the largest, and most consistent voting bloc in the nation. We show up, we turn out, and we’re difference makers. In every place where Black women vote in concentration, we are able to make a difference in these races, and there are so many critical issues on the line right now for the nation, but that particularly affect Black women, whether we’re talking about reproductive freedoms, our education system, or economic issues. These are things that affect the daily lives of everyday Black women and their families. And so it is critically important that Black women turn out to vote. Our vote is important.
Despite the voter suppression issues that we are seeing day to day in the nation and all of the voter suppression laws that have been passed, Black women, I believe will find a way to show up at the polls and make their voices heard in order to really try to redirect the nation. And the way that our country is currently the trajectory that it’s been taking. Under some of these MAGA Republicans, extreme right wing, white supremacist folks who are running for office, we can stem the tide. We can inject some commonsense reality into the election cycles and into the issues. We are known for parsing issues, sizing our candidates and choosing what is best for our families, for our communities and for us, and that’s why our vote is always sought after, it’s in demand, and it’s why we turn out to vote every time.
WATCH: The Black women who helped confirm the first Black woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court
Finney: I worked on polling in the Georgia special election, and quite literally, Black voters made the difference. We had Black folks who hadn’t voted in the November 2020 election, who showed up in that January, special election in 2021, and that is how we have a 50/50 Senate. When we think about the impact of us showing up and the results, if we didn’t show up, there’s no Justice Jackson, there’s no COVID recovery plan, there’s no money going to states for infrastructure, there’s no $35 insulin, and so we literally helped to change the direction of the country, and we’ve got more work to do.
That’s part of why it’s so important that we show up this November. America is at a very pivotal moment, and it’s not about going back to the 1950s. We’re talking about the 1850s in terms of how regressive some of these MAGA ideas are, and how dangerous some of the Republicans are who are running for Senate.
In terms of the issues that directly impact our lives, and the direction of this country, if we want to keep moving forward and as long as we want more Justice Jacksons we have to keep showing up and understand that voting is a lifestyle, it’s not a one-time thing in order to make real change.
Daughtry: I just want to add that I was sitting in the hearing room during then Judge Jackson’s hearings, and [Senator] Lindsey Graham made a very political statement. He said that Judge Jackson was extremely qualified, but that if his party was in charge, she would never have gotten a hearing, even though she was qualified.
My mouth fell open because I’ve never heard anything so blatantly political in that kind of setting. The progress we have seen in these last two years will go right out the window, as they have promised to undo much of what we have voted, and that is what is going to pass. Do we want to go back to the time when our ancestors were enslaved and couldn’t make decisions about their own bodies? That’s what we’re facing. But more than that, I want to just put a marker down, this is not simply the federal elections. There are elections happening for mayors, state senate and state legislators, governors across the country who are also going to have the authority and the power to create legislation in our states where we live and that will affect our lives. We [Black women] know how to size up the issue. We know how to judge a candidate and we know what’s best for our communities, so this is a really pivotal time for us to show up and do what we know how to do to take our country back.
ESSENCE: There are a record number of Black women running for Congress this cycle. What is the BWLC doing to support, and what do you think this means for our country?
Daughtry: Black women are moving forcefully, aggressively into the rights of elected leadership, and understanding that they can win, that they should run, and that they have the wherewithal and the talent to take our nation to a different place.
It’s really gratifying to see this record number of people running for office! Our partner organizations in the collective are all on the ground in states doing their part for women who are running for office, mobilizing people, registering women to vote, organizing them so that they will vote, and helping folks get on a voting plan if they’re in a state that is advancing voter suppression legislation. We are all in, we are active, and going to do everything we can with leveraging our networks to ensure that women and communities have what they need to get to the polls, to be registered, and to cast their votes.
Finney: That’s part of the power of the collective is our ability to support each other’s work, help to amplify and lift up what each of the organizations are doing so that we magnify our power. We are looking very closely at how and where we can make the most difference in terms of helping Black women not just vote but helping make sure that black women are elected at all levels of government. In addition to that, we also help to leverage our own time, talent and wisdom to help problem solve with candidates as needed and be a resource and support. Running for office is hard, it can be lonely, and knowing that sisters have your back is critical. Because when we leverage our power together, that is how we move forward.