Ketanji Brown Jackson nods to history in first remarks after Supreme Court confirmation

The soon-to-be first Black woman justice said in her family, it took just one generation to go from segregation to the Supreme Court

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during an event celebrating her confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court with President Joe Biden on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during an event celebrating her confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court with President Joe Biden on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Posted April 8, 2022 at 3:29pm

Ketanji Brown Jackson fought back tears at times as she stood on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday and declared, “We’ve made it,” in her first public comments after the Senate confirmed her as the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

At an event with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and numerous Democratic lawmakers in attendance, Jackson thanked a long list of people who helped her on the road from federal public defender to federal trial and appellate judge, and soon to a seat on the country’s high court.

“It has taken 232 years and 115 prior appointments for a Black woman to be selected to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. But we’ve made it,” Jackson said, nodding as the crowd applauded. “We’ve made it. All of us. All of us.”

The event celebrated a historic moment for the country at the end of a Senate confirmation process that has grown increasingly partisan, and Jackson spoke of civil rights struggles that got her there.

“So as I take on this new role, I strongly believe that this is a moment in which all Americans can take great pride. We have come a long way toward perfecting our union,” Jackson said. “In my family, it took just one generation to go from segregation to the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Jackson quoted poet Maya Angelou and stressed the line: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”

Jackson said that during the confirmation process she received thousands of notes from people across the country, including messages from children. “Our children are telling me that they see now, more than ever, that here in America anything is possible,” Jackson said.

White House celebrates

In his own speech, Biden spoke to the meaning of Jackson’s confirmation. “This is gonna let so much sun shine on so many young women, so many young black men, so many minorities, that it’s real, is real,” Biden said. “We’re gonna look back — nothing to do with me — we’re gonna look back and see this as a moment of real change in American history.”

The Senate voted 53-47 on Thursday to confirm Jackson with the backing of three Republicans: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah.

Biden thanked them for their votes, as well as Senate Democrats who filled the crowd that included White House staffers and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a handful wearing masks.

Jackson will take the seat of Justice Stephen G. Breyer when he retires at the end of the Supreme Court’s term in June. When she does, the Supreme Court will for the first time have four women justices, and white men will be a minority of the court. Jackson also will be the first federal public defender to become a justice.

Vice President Kamala Harris said at the event Friday that she wrote a note to her goddaughter about the historic moment as she presided over the Senate confirmation vote Thursday. Harris herself is the country’s first Black, first Asian and first woman vice president.

“I will tell you, her braids are just a little longer than yours. But as I wrote to her, I told her what I knew this would mean for her life and all that she has in terms of potential,” Harris said. “So indeed the road toward our more perfect union is not always straight, and it is not always smooth, but sometimes it leads to a day like today.”

A side of politics

The event capped a unifying six weeks for Biden’s party, which also saw Democrats rally around efforts to stymie Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after intraparty struggles frustrated Biden’s push for a major economic recovery package.

Biden contrasted the historic moment with Republicans’ treatment of Jackson in her confirmation hearing. At Friday’s event, Biden argued they engaged in “verbal abuse.”

“The anger, the constant interruptions, the most vile and baseless assertions and accusations,” Biden said.

Democrats have already sought to forge Jackson’s confirmation into another tool in their project to hold on to the closely divided Senate. The Democratic National Committee announced a “Promises Kept” radio and print advertising campaign in key battleground states such as Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced its own digital ad buy Friday focusing on Black media outlets in battleground states. Groups like Priorities USA have already started to include Republicans’ questions of Jackson during the confirmation hearing in an ad released Friday.

Black voters lean Democratic and were a key factor in both Biden’s 2020 presidential victory and the two Georgia Senate victories in 2021 that gave Democrats control of the 50-50 Senate. A Morning Consult poll released last month showed a 12-percentage-point jump in Black voters’ excitement for voting in the fall after Biden announced Jackson’s nomination.