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The Hon. Ketanji Brown Jackson's MLK Day Lecture Honors Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement

By Laura Billiter, 3L
January 29, 2020

Michigan Law Associate Dean Daniel Halberstam introduced The Hon. Ketanji Brown Jackson ahead of her Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture at the Law School by listing a few of her many accolades.

She clerked for three federal judges, including Associate Justice Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court. She served as commissioner and vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. She was a supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Judge Jackson, a U.S. district judge for the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, then introduced herself through a different lens during her talk, "Courage // Purpose // Authenticity: Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement Era and Beyond."

"My parents gave me an African name," she said. "They dressed me in a mini dashiki." Growing up in the 1970s, she was "rocking afro-puffs."

"In a very real sense," said Judge Jackson, "I am a very lucky first inheritor of Dr. King's civil rights legacy. And for that, I am profoundly grateful."

The Law School has hosted speakers in celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday annually since 1999. Judge Jackson's lecture served as a tribute to the black women who actively participated in the "pivotal events" of the civil rights movement and their legacy—a legacy that has remained largely in the background of history, much like the women themselves.

"Although men were unquestionably the face of the civil rights movement," said Judge Jackson, "commentators have characterized women as its backbone, and to a certain extent, its heart."

Drawing on the research and work of other academics, Judge Jackson spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about the "core characteristics" that black women leaders of that era generally shared and explored the women's motivation for "investing so much in the betterment of themselves and their communities in the midst of a society that did not invest in them."

These characteristics of black women's lives—courage, purpose, and authenticity—contributed to their "cultural preparation for resistance," she said.

According to Judge Jackson, because of the position that black women generally held at the bottom rung of society, their "double or triple" consciousness of race, sex, and class limitations provided the moral clarity necessary to recognize the need for justice, as well as the courage to seek it. Black women's strong cultural bonds and faith gave them the strength to persevere and imbued them with a sense of purpose, and their unshakeable commitment to the ideals of American society could be characterized as a "species of authenticity."

"They knew what freedom meant and they knew it was being denied to black Americans, even as this country purported to promote the core values of liberty and democracy," she said.

Judge Jackson also acknowledged the impact of gender on the recognition of black women's political contributions during the civil rights movement. Calling them the movement's "invisible leaders," Jackson shed light on a few of those women and their work.

One such leader was The Hon. Constance Baker Motley. Judge Motley drafted the original brief in Brown v. Board of Education, was the first black woman to argue a case in the Supreme Court, became the first black woman elected to the New York state senate, and was the first black female federal judge in the United States.

As a "point of personal privilege," Judge Jackson had two additional observations to make about Judge Motley.

"First, Judge Motley and I share a birthday," she said. "And now, we both have given lectures at this esteemed Law School on Martin Luther King Day. As you see on your program, it appears she was the first to speak at this event."

The lecture culminated in a 30-minute Q&A session, followed by a reception hosted in the Jeffries Lounge.

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