President Joe Biden announced federal appeals court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as his nominee to become the next Supreme Court justice, establishing a milestone for Black women in the United States.
But the landmark nomination comes after years of campaigning by Black women to be represented on the nation’s highest court.
In 2020, Black women attorneys Brandi Colander, Kim Tignor and April Reign of #OscarsSoWhite fame, with organizer Sabriya Williams, joined forces to create a national campaign called “She Will Rise.” Inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” they set out to help ensure a Black woman would be nominated and confirmed to the lifetime appointment.
“We’re all proud Americans who are committed to judicial representation that reflects the diversity of our country,” Colander said. “Today, we are one step closer to having a Supreme Court justice that looks like us, and more courts that reflect the inclusive experiences of all Americans.”
Since it first convened in 1790, all but seven Supreme Court justices have been white men. There have been two Black men and five women, including one Latina. But a Black woman has yet to serve on the bench.
While campaigning for president, Biden said he would nominate a Black woman to the high court if he won the election. Now, he has named Jackson to succeed Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who will retire when the court’s current term concludes this summer.
Indeed, Vice President Kamala Harris recently told the National Black Caucus of State Legislators that Biden would name “a most eminently qualified, extraordinary lawyer and jurist who will have a record of excellence and will happen to be a Black woman” to the post. “And she will be, without any question … she will be the first, but not the last.”
In addition to Harris, Black women leaders have been among those involved publicly and behind the scenes to advance the cause of calling for a formidable Black woman nominee. Before selecting Jackson, a White House aide told NBC News that the president has been “meeting with Republicans and Democrats,” as well as various experts and advisers about the nomination and the confirmation process. “There’s also been very diligent vetting,” the aide said.
Among the Black women tapped by the White House to help the process is Minyon Moore, with the title of nomination adviser for engagement. The top public affairs strategist and organizer previously served as assistant to the president and director of White House political affairs for then-President Bill Clinton, as well as chief executive officer of the Democratic National Committee.
Meanwhile, fellow Black women leaders have mobilized, be it via petition, social media and reported calls with Cedric Richmond, senior advisor to the president, or in letters to the commander in chief himself. Earlier this month, more than a dozen Black congresswomen, including Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., wrote to Biden commending him, and noting the necessity of a Black woman on the Supreme Court right now.
“It is no coincidence that the precedents set by the court in its history have largely reflected the perspective and limitations of those appointed to the bench, all the while, eroding public trust and credibility in an institution established to protect our most sacred and fundamental rights,” they wrote.
Glynda Carr, co-founder and president of Higher Heights for America, which works to elect and politically empower Black women, agreed that the time is long overdue.
Last year, for International Women’s Day, the organization took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times. “Zero Black women in the Senate. Zero Black women on the Supreme Court. Zero Black women Governors. Zero Black women…Presidents,” it read in part. “We need them now more than ever.”
Carr said she views this historic moment as one to address long-standing disparities in judicial nominations. Black women comprise about 7 percent of the U.S. population of 331 million per Census Bureau data, but the Pew Research Center reports that less than 2 percent of federal judges have been Black women.
Yet, she said there is no shortage of educated, credentialed Black women attorneys and jurists from whom to choose. As exhibited by the search for a vice president, “there is a long and deep bench of highly qualified women and Black women,” she said. “After 180 years of only men, then a few women, we finally have an opportunity for a more diverse judiciary.”
Jackson was among a list of potential nominees including federal district court Judge J. Michelle Childs of South Carolina, as well as California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger.
Advocates such as Melanie L. Campbell, convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, said Jackson's combination of sterling credentials, strong character and “lived experience” as a Black woman will strengthen the court’s ability to establish justice for all Americans.
The organization Campbell leads, along with the National Council of Negro Women, Black Women Lead and dozens of groups representing the civil rights, voting rights, clergy, and civic arenas, recently penned a letter to Biden, too.
“Nominating a Black woman with the necessary compassion, sense of justice, and brilliant legal mind will bolster the integrity of the Supreme Court by bringing about a balance that ensures the court is more representative of all Americans,” the group wrote. “And we are confident that the person you select will have a record that reflects an unwavering commitment to our Constitution, justice, integrity, and democracy that service on our highest court demands.”
Jotaka Eaddy, the founder and convenor of #WinWithBlackWomen and a signatory on the letter, expressed joy about this “inspiring and incredible time,” but also acknowledged that their excitement is tempered by the realities of potential hurdles Jackson may face.
“Already we’re seeing dog whistles,” she said. For example, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on his podcast of Biden, “the fact that he’s willing to make a promise at the outset that it must be a Black woman, I gotta say that’s offensive.”
Eaddy said, however, that they are “trying to ensure the process is void of racism and sexism.”
Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a national network elevating women of color in politics, concurred.
“There are some that will attempt to diminish the experience and qualifications of these nominees in a crass partisan play,” she said. “What’s most important in this moment is that the Black woman who will be chosen as the nominee is treated with respect through this process. That her character and credentials are respected in this process.”
Allison said she rejects critics such as Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who said in a radio interview that the nominee will be a “beneficiary” of affirmative action.
“What we know is that any Black woman who is considered for this seat will be more than qualified based on merit, accomplishment, and her deep legal credentials. So, qualifications won’t be the issue,” she said. “The issue will be if her personhood is attacked or protected through this process. We will not allow attacks aimed at diminishing the individual qualifications of a nominee to sully this remarkable moment in the history and future of America.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said the sharply divided Senate will undertake committee and confirmation hearings “with all deliberate speed.”
That’s good news to Laphonza Butler, the first Black president of EMILY’s List.
“I can hardly contain my enthusiasm,” she said. “And when I think about the road the eventual nominee must have traveled to get there — considering this country’s history and current grappling with racism and sexism — I think about the countless women whose perspective she will bring to this court. And the role model she will be for generations of girls like my daughter.”