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Civil rights activists are prepared to fight for Jackson's nomination to the court

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, with President Biden and Vice President Harris, speaks after being nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court at the White House on Feb. 25.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, with President Biden and Vice President Harris, speaks after being nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court at the White House on Feb. 25.

Last Friday the four women who founded sistascotus.com were gathered in a room together, celebrating. In 2020, Kim Tignor, Brandi Colander, Sabriya I. Williams and April Reign started talking about the likelihood of another vacancy on the Supreme Court. The four high-powered women decided they wanted to make sure that this time a seat on the bench would be set for a Black woman.

For the past two years they've been "building this grassroots movement toward the support of President Biden's campaign promise to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme court," says Reign, who is best known for the creation of the #OscarsSoWhite movement.

"Yes it's been two years," Williams adds in, "but it's been a long time coming that we had any kind of representation."

That long wait finally ended when Biden announced his pick, bookended by Black women, Vice President Harris and SCOTUS nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson.

"I mean, chills, goosebumps," says Williams.

"The her-story written today alone is epic," says Colander.

"It's pure joy," says Tignor.

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Votes Matter, says the whole thing — the announcement, listening to Jackson speak — made her more emotional than expected.

"I had this big smile on my face, while at the same time I could feel these tears," she says.

Brown took a second to sit in the weight of history. "I thought about all of the Black women who had been denied that opportunity," she says.

It wasn't just the historical moment that struck Alicia Graza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, when she heard the pick was Jackson. It was this judge in particular.

"There's never been a Black woman on the Supreme Court," says Garza, "but the bigger issue is that there has never been a person on the Supreme Court with a background like hers."

"Public defenders are the civil rights lawyers of our generation"

Garza lists the accomplishments that make Jackson a unique pick, including "taking on Donald Trump and a long record of taking on sentencing reform." Jackson would also be the first sitting justice to have served as a public defender, and the first to have defended poor people since Judge Thurgood Marshall.

Brandon Woods, chief public defender in Alameda County in California and one of only two chief Black public defenders in the state, says that "public defenders are the civil rights lawyers of our generation."

"She's fought for people who have no one else to fight for them," Woods says. "We're literally fighting for people's freedom every day."

"We have a very unique perspective and unique exposure to the criminal legal system," he says, especially when it comes to issues of race.

Public defenders have a front row seat to how race plays out "in jury selection, in racial bias and prosecution, in corrupt and abusive policing and in draconian sentences," Woods says.

"Too many judges at every level, including the Supreme Court, simply adopt the view of the prosecutor or adopt a position of law enforcement," he says.

Woods also knows what he sees as a positive, may be used against her in the confirmation process. "If anyone's going to be able to hold ground and to put up a fight for our civil rights, it's going to be a Black woman, a Black woman public defender," Woods says.

Preparing for the backlash

"Regardless of how prepared she is, regardless of how brilliant she is, we're going to see attacks on her character," says LaTosha Brown.

Brown says when you are fighting for civil rights you celebrate the win and then you prepare for the backlash. "She doesn't deserve that, but I'll just say, you know, we are ready for the fight."

Brown says she and other civil rights advocates are preparing to have Jackson's back. "Black women all across the country have been organizing," Brown notes. We've been educating the community. We've been putting ourselves in position to call those that are in power, to let them know that in this particular moment that she is not standing alone."

"Part of our work will be educating the public," Brown says. "And then part of our work is really recognizing that we're in an era where the Republican Party has embraced racist tropes. We are prepared to protect and defend her name, and to actually call out racism."

Racist responses to Jackson's nomination have already come rolling in, with Fox News's Tucker Carlson questioning why Jackson's LSAT scores have not been shared, implying that not sharing them was abnormal, when previous white nominees have never been asked for their test scores.

Brown says she worries the dog whistle and outright racism will only get louder as we approach the confirmation hearings, scheduled for March 21.

Impact on voting rights and getting out the Black vote

A lot of the work Alicia Garza does these days with her organization, Black Futures Lab, is to mobilize Black voters. Garza says their most recent polls show Black voters' support for Biden is continuing to decline. "We are seeing a deep dissatisfaction with how the government is functioning right now" she says. "Black folks are not relieved or recovered from the 'rona."

There is a clamor for political action that is not happening — more COVID recovery, criminal justice reform, addressing white supremacy and changing the filibuster so legislation like voting rights has a fighting chance of passage.

Charlane Oliver, the co-founder of Equity Alliance, notes, "We're past that moment when we could have gotten voting rights passed."

The Nashville voting rights advocate adds, "Black folks came out in droves during a pandemic to elect a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate."

But then little happened.

"I think people are exhausted," she adds. "People are fatigued and quite frankly, depressed about the outcome."

Oliver says right now she doesn't feel like the fulfillment of this one campaign promise — of a Black woman justice — will be enough, when so many other promises or priorities have been left to languish. "I am not sure if this will be enough in terms of a Black woman being on the Supreme court," she says "to mobilize and motivate voters to go to the polls in the midterms."

Even if voters do go to the polls, Oliver says the biggest obstacle in Tennessee is gerrymandering. "Redistricting was the last frontier in terms of us having a voice in Congress and they split Nashville three ways and broke up our democratic representation," she says.

They are fighting those Republican drawn maps in court.

Which is another reason this nomination matters, and also isn't enough, Oliver says. Because in the end it will likely be the courts who decide whether to protect or further dismantle voting rights across the country.

Garza say Jackson's nomination is a good start.

"We need to change the balance of power on the Supreme Court so that we can establish and entrench rights for everybody," she says. "It's not just about putting a Black woman on there. It's about putting a Black woman on there with a vision for how it is that we save this damn country."

Brandi Colander, with sisterscotus.com, says she believes this nomination can shift momentum for voters, especially Black voters. "They're exhausted," she acknowledges, "but we are also doing that work to mobilize and we're getting the feedback that this is a very big win, in terms of feeling seen."

Sitting together with the women she's been organizing with for this to happen, Colander says nothing can dull the moment. "On this day, the joy of actually feeling seen, no one can take that from us, despite what other things may play out over this process," she says.

LaTosha Brown says this nomination reflects back an even bigger picture — what regular folks can make happen when they push, advocate and fight. "This is something great that Biden did, but this is what the people did," Brown says.

"This is what we made happen. And so we're going to organize, really using that frame of the possibilities that exist when people operate in the fullness of our power," she says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.