The confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the US supreme court marked a moment in American history many in public life waited over decades for – and one some thought they would never see happen.
When the day arrived, it inspired an outbreak of euphoria for many Black Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“I’m glad I’m alive,” said a joyful Yvette Clarke, a New York congresswoman.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) filed on to Capitol Hill, through corridors lined with portraits, busts and statues of the white men who have dominated Congress since its inception.
Clarke’s district was once represented by the first Black woman ever elected to the Congress, the late Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn, who was first elected in 1969.
“I’m glad I’m around to witness this,” Clarke told the Guardian. “I wasn’t around for Thurgood Marshall,” she said, referring to the lawyer and civil rights activist who became the first African American on the supreme court in 1967, and who served until 1991.
Clarke entered Congress in 2007. “This is so historic on so many different levels,” she said.
After the 53-47 Senate vote that included the support of three Republicans, Jackson will take her place as an associate justice on the nine-member court. She will be the 121st justice to join America’s highest judicial body, established in 1790.
In October 1967, Marshall became a supreme court justice. In September 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the court. In August 2009, Sonia Sotomayor became the court’s first Hispanic member.
And in April 2022, Jackson became the first Black woman confirmed to the bench in its 232-year existence.
“I’m very proud that my very first vote to confirm a supreme court nominee will be to confirm this historic pick,” Raphael Warnock, who won his own milestone race in January last year to become Georgia’s first Black US senator, told the Guardian as he headed to the Senate chamber to vote for Jackson.
“I had the opportunity to meet her, and she brings talent and integrity and as we saw during those scorched-earth hearings, a great deal of grace and civility,” he added, nodding to Jackson’s confirmation sessions before the Senate judiciary committee last month where she endured vicious attacks from several Republicans.
The chair of the CBC, Representative Joyce Beatty of Ohio, swept on to Capitol Hill on Thursday and witnessed Jackson’s triumph.
“It means the world to us, because when you think about voting rights, when you think about our children, when you think about all of our fundamental issues – it starts at the supreme court,” Beatty said.
“For the first time, a Black woman sitting there. It gives us balance. Not only because she’s Black, but because of her judicial temperance, and because of her reverence for the rule of law. But also when you look at her background and culture: she attended public [publicly funded] schools,” Beatty continued.
Members of the caucus gathering in an ornate room in the Capitol near the House floor for a group photo after Jackson was confirmed included those holding black T-shirts saying “Black Women are Supreme”.
Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia said: “Despite all of the dog-whistling and appealing to racist instincts among the Republican base, there are three Republican senators who have been able to work their way through all of the QAnon-conspiracy nonsense being spewed by Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, and folks trying to outdo themselves with outrageousness directed toward [Jackson].”
Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah broke with their fellows who went along with Republican leadership, and those who attacked Jackson outright, and voted for Joe Biden’s nominee.
“I’m glad we had three Republican senators who saw through that, and recognized how eminently qualified Ketanji Brown Jackson is, and the fact that she will bring more experience to the bench than just about every one of the justices on the supreme court – including the chief justice [John Roberts],” Johnson added.
Jackson has a connection to Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida, who represents parts of Miami, and has known the judge’s parents for decades.
“Her father was the first Black school board attorney when I was serving on the school board. Her mother was a principal when I was a principal … so [for] the Black people in Miami, you can imagine what’s happening now as we watch this,” she told the Guardian.
“Young kids know her name, and they’re talking about her in schools. They’re talking about her in barbershops,” she said. “This was a young lady who grew up with people telling her you can be anything you want to be.”
On Thursday afternoon, a beaming Kamala Harris also became emotional as, in her other role as president of the Senate, she announced that Jackson was officially confirmed.
The first female and first Black US vice-president marked another historic moment that, as Harris said after she won the 2020 election with Biden, may be the first but “won’t be the last”.