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Black women form the first line of defense for a historic Supreme Court nominee

Activists hold a news conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on March 10 asking for the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the court.
Daniel Slim
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AFP via Getty Images
Activists hold a news conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on March 10 asking for the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the court.

A group of seven Black women posed for a photo near the Supreme Court last week while wearing identical shirts: bright teal with a photo of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in the center.

As her friends looked on, Petee Talley explained why it was so important to be there that day, among hundreds of people — mostly other Black women — for an event supporting Jackson's nomination to the Supreme Court.

"Biden has nominated a woman who is supremely qualified for this position. She has — her whole life — has been in preparation for such a time as this," said Talley, who lives in Toledo, Ohio.

If she is confirmed by the Senate, Jackson would become the first Black woman to serve on the court in its nearly 233-year history. Her nomination is the fulfillment of a promise that President Biden made during his 2020 presidential campaign, to name the first Black woman to the court.

In Washington and across the U.S., the news was met with excitement among Black women. It has also led to fierce organizing on Jackson's behalf.

In interviews, more than a dozen Black women said they were preparing to be Jackson's first line of defense against anticipated Republican attacks and to help share her story with the nation.

Talley said she feared that Republicans were going to try to discredit Jackson during the confirmation process, despite the fact that she has been approved by the Senate three times before, for two federal courts and as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

"We just, again, want it to be fair. She's qualified — she's supremely qualified — and we just don't want to hear any foolishness about anything, because it's not there," she added.

Black women were organizing before there was a nominee

The event outside the Supreme Court on March 10 was organized by the Black Women's Roundtable and other groups. The groups were there to support Jackson's nomination and call for a smooth confirmation process.

Melanie Campbell, the head of the Black Women's Roundtable, led the group in a call and response.

"Who do you want confirmed?" Campbell asked the crowd, which roared back, "Ketanji Brown Jackson," pausing for emphasis between each part of Jackson's name.

Some of the women in the crowd wore bold colors — pink and green, royal blue, crimson — the colors representing some of the historically Black sororities that are part of the Divine Nine.

Dressed in the brilliant red of Delta Sigma Theta, Bettianne Hart said she wasn't sure she'd ever see a Black woman nominated to the court.

"I'm 73 years old. I'm a child of the '60s, and this is just a dream come true," said Hart, who has been practicing law for more than four decades and is a judge from Atlanta.

She said she plans to pray for Jackson during the confirmation hearings because she believes the nominee is in for a "very contentious and rude process." Asked why she feels that way, Hart simply said: "History."

"Let's face it: What everything that she stands for, everything she represents, is something that was never designed to be in the justice halls," Hart said, gesturing behind her toward the Supreme Court building. "And so she doesn't expect an easy ride, and none of us expect an easy ride for her."

That idea — the understanding that this process could look different for a Black woman than for any Supreme Court nominee before her — is why Black women leaders say they got to work, strategizing even before Biden announced that Jackson would be his nominee.

Soon after Justice Stephen Breyer revealed that he planned to retire, the Congressional Black Caucus set up what its chair, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, described as a "war room" to mobilize around Biden's eventual nominee.

"We wanted to make sure that we were positioned, we had a voice and that we wanted the hearings to start immediately, and that we were going to be dealing with anything that was not aboveboard in the hearings and in her confirmation," Beatty said in an interview.

Beatty said it was particularly important for the 28 Black women who are members of the caucus to mobilize on Jackson's behalf. Currently, no Black women are serving in the Senate, so no Black women will decide whether Jackson is confirmed.

"We will be on every national platform, whether invited or not," Beatty said. "We will impose ourselves there because the nation will be watching."

Defending history from attacks in the Senate and on Fox News

These efforts underscore the importance of Jackson's historic nomination to Black women, who have long been the Democratic Party's most reliable voters.

"We've spent a lot of time talking about how Black women voters are a powerful voting bloc, but we also organize our house, our block, our church, our sorority and our unions," said Glynda Carr, the president of Higher Heights for America, a group that works to support Black women in politics.

Carr said she keeps hearing from Black women who want to be in the process and say they plan to come to Washington for the confirmation hearings, even if they cannot physically be in the hearing room themselves.

"There are Black women who are like, 'I am coming to D.C.,' " she said. " 'I might not be able to be in that hearing room, but it is something about just being in this moment.' "

Democratic strategist Juanita Tolliver said it is hard to put into words the excitement that many Black women feel about Jackson.

"She's a Black woman who shows up in Sisterlocks. She's a Black woman who shared the true nuance of her family history and her family's troubles, like a number of Black people can find highly relatable in this country," Tolliver said. "And so I think that level of authenticity is what's sparking a lot of joy, a lot of the energy."

Tolliver was referring to Jackson's uncle, who was sentenced to life in prison under a federal three-strikes law aimed at repeat drug offenders and who later had his sentence commuted by President Barack Obama.

Jackson addressed that directly when she spoke to the nation for the first time as the president's Supreme Court nominee.

"You may have read that I have one uncle who got caught up in the drug trade and received a life sentence. That is true," Jackson said, "but law enforcement also runs in my family."

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson meets with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on March 15.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson meets with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on March 15.

When Biden reiterated that he planned to name the first Black woman to the court, it drew criticism from some Republicans who argued that the choice should be based solely on merit, rather than on race or gender.

"If he came and said, 'I'm gonna put the best jurist on the court,' and he looked at a number of people and he ended up nominating a Black woman, he could credibly say, 'OK, I'm nominating the person who's most qualified,' " Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on a recent episode of his podcast. "He's not even pretending to say that. He's saying, 'If you're a white guy, tough luck. If you're a white woman, tough luck. You don't qualify.' "

But a comment that has resonated among Black women came not from a member of the Senate but from Fox News host Tucker Carlson. He mocked Jackson's first name and demanded to see her LSAT scores. The comment set off alarm bells for many Black women, who say that it was clearly rooted in racism and that the same standard was not applied to white nominees who came before Jackson.

"You know, that's the type of misogyny and otherism that Republicans often apply to women of color, and particularly Black women," said Tara Setmayer, a longtime conservative who broke with the Republican Party several years ago. "It's just indicative of the old tropes that they trot out, unfortunately."

Setmayer said that during the four days of confirmation hearings, Republican senators should focus on Jackson's rulings and her interpretation of the Constitution.

Biden hasn't always touted the history his Supreme Court pick could make

While Black women and Black lawmakers are circling Jackson with support from the outside, some say they hope to see the White House — and Biden himself — take a more prominent stance in support of the first Black woman to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.

Some have pointed to the fact that the nomination got little mention during Biden's recent State of the Union address. During his remarks, Biden described Jackson as "one of our nation's top legal minds, who will continue Justice Breyer's legacy of excellence." He did not, as Tolliver pointed out, take note of the history that Jackson was stepping into.

"I did a double take. I said, 'Oh, is that it?' I felt like it warranted a lot more space, not only for the historic nature of it but also the political implications," Tolliver said.

She said she hopes that next week the White House marshals all its resources behind Jackson and more forcefully elevates her profile.

"He absolutely should take every opportunity to not only defend her from racist and misogynistic attacks during the confirmation hearings but to celebrate her once this confirmation is complete," Tolliver said.

Back outside the Supreme Court, Gwendolyn Thompson of Maryland, a member of the Swing Phi Swing social group, said she showed up to send a signal to the Senate that Black women care deeply about how the confirmation process plays out.

She called Jackson's nomination a step in the right direction.

"I remember when we didn't have a man on the moon, if you understand what I'm saying," Thompson said. "So it's a step. We're not living on the moon, but we got a step."

For Jackson, the next step is four days of confirmation hearing that begin on Monday.

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

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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