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Ketanji always knew she wanted to be a judge, but some people dismissed her dreams due to her skin color. Still, she never let people’s doubts shake her confidence. She persevered and became the first Black Female Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Emily McMahon-Wattez and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Ilean Riçhard. Our executive producer was Joy Smith. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
|First, we take you to the lush green lawns of the White House. It’s a crisp Spring day in Washington, D.C.. A light breeze blows across a blue sky. Birds sing in celebration from their perches in the budding cherry trees.
And out of the White House steps Ketanji Brown Jackson. She holds her head high and beams with excitement, a smile stretching from ear to ear. Ketanji walks next to the President and Vice-President of the United States, towards a small stage.
A crowd cheers and applauds as the trio moves closer. The photographers are snap snap-snapping away. Ketanji’s heart beats fast, her stomach fills with butterflies. She can hardly believe this day is here. She’s been dreaming of this moment for as long as she can remember.
|Her parents gave her an African name, Ketanji Onyika, which means “Lovely one”. And how lovely she was – a little girl with coffee brown skin, dark sparkling eyes, and two afro puffs of hair pigtailed atop her head.
Ketanji first learned about lawyers and judges when she was four years old. That’s when her family moved to Miami so that her father could go to law school. Every night he’d sit at the dinner table with a giant stack of books, studying the laws of the United States. Ketanji loved to sit next to him with her own pile of coloring books, dreaming of going to law school too.
In her mostly-white community, Ketanji stood out. But she refused to let things like an unusual name, or a darker shade of skin, stop her from doing the things she loved. Her parents taught her that she could be anyone and do anything she wanted. She’d just have to work hard, and believe in herself and that is exactly what she did.
“My name is Ketanji Brown: K-E-T/-A-N-/J-I” she spelled out for her classmates. Sometimes she’d even go up and write her name on the blackboard. She was confident in who she was. When she was told she couldn’t be in the school play because it was a story about a white family, she didn’t let that stop her. She was on the debate team, competing with some of the sharpest minded kids in the country. Even when she was the only dark-skinned girl in the room or felt intimidated, she stood up tall and greeted everyone with a bright smile. By the time she got to high school, she was voted class president… THREE years in a row! Also, “most likely to succeed” and “most talented” in the yearbook.
Still, when Ketanji told her school guidance counselor about her plans to go to Harvard, one of the best universities in the country, and to become a judge, the counselor looked her up and down and said, “Perhaps, you shouldn’t set your sights so high.”
That hurt. Ketanji felt like she was being dismissed. but she wouldn’t let the counselor’s words discourage her. She remembered what her parents told her about believing in herself. She walked out of the counselor’s office and filled out her application for Harvard, signing her name in big, bold letters.
|And guess what…she got in!
Ketanji was thrilled. And also a bit overwhelmed. When she got to Harvard, she saw that even though it was a huge university, she was often the only non-white person in the classroom. Plus, now she was more than a thousand miles away from any of her friends and family, which felt very lonely sometimes.
One fall evening, as Ketanji was walking through the campus feeling pretty down, she crossed paths with a black woman whom she’d never met before. As they passed, the woman leaned in close and whispered to Ketanji, “Persevere.”
To “persevere” means to keep trying, even when things seem impossible. Hearing this from a complete stranger filled Ketanji with so much strength and hope. She felt like she was part of a new sisterhood, a new generation of rebels making great change. That moment was a huge inspiration to Ketanji and from that day on, any time things were especially hard, she remembered that kind stranger, who knew how it felt to be a black woman, proving yourself to white strangers time and time again.
After graduating at the top of her class, Ketanji went to Harvard law school and worked in a variety of jobs, determined to learn all about practicing law. She worked as a clerk (which is a type of important helper) for two judges, and for Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, which was a very very big honor. She also worked as a public defender, where her job was to represent people who couldn’t afford a lawyer. And she worked on a committee that made sure judges across the country were being thoughtful and fair.
Ketanji also got married and became a mother. She and her husband had two beautiful girls, Talia and Leila, just a few years apart. It was tricky, trying to balance these time-consuming jobs while caring for two small girls, but again, Ketanji persevered.
Then – 17 years into her career, Ketanji was nominated and confirmed to be a judge on the US District Court in DC in Washington, D.C. This is a very prestigious job, Rebels. There, Ketanji made decisions on big cases, protecting women’s rights, civil rights, the environment, freedom of speech, and immigration. Over the next 8 years she built a reputation for being a judge who was fair and who truly listened to all sides of the story before giving her decisions.
She was so well-respected, that President Biden nominated Ketanji to become the next Supreme Court Justice. As you may know, the Supreme court is the highest court in the U.S. and once you are appointed, you get to stay there for your entire life. So this is about the biggest honor any judge can receive. Ketanji’s own mentor, Justice Breyer, had decided to retire, and President Biden saw that Ketanji was the perfect person to take his seat. Ketanji was beyond excited! .
But first, the Senate needed to have a hearing and decide if they agreed with the President’s choice.
|Just like her memories of debate team and her first days at Harvard, Ketanji found herself standing in front of a sea of mostly white faces. For three long days, senators from all across the country grilled her with questions, challenging her, asking her to prove to them that she belonged. Even with all of her hard work and experience in law and her reputation for being fair and balanced, they kept questioning whether she’d be able to judge cases fairly. Some of the senators wanted her to get angry, and lash out, to show that she wouldn’t be able to handle the pressures of the job. Some asked her unfair things that had nothing to do with her ability to be a judge.
But Ketanji had been preparing for this moment her whole life. She wasn’t discouraged by their tricky questions, and she never felt alone in front of that large crowd. Ketanji’s husband and her daughters sat right behind her, supporting her, and she could feel the pride and admiration glowing on their faces. She answered every single question the senators threw at her, with patience and intelligence.
After the hearings, Ketanji sat with President Biden in the West Wing of the White House. Together they watched the Senate, live, on a giant tv screen as Vice President Harris opened the voting…
“The question occurs, on the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, of the District of Columbia, to be an associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States…”
The 100 senators of the United States each cast their votes, one at a time – some for her, and some against.
Mr. Baldwin, Aye. (Which is a fancy way of saying “yes”)
Ms. Blackburn, No.
Ms. Feinstein, Aye.
Mr. Graham – *pause * – Mr. Graham, No.
As she watched, Ketanji took long, steady breaths. No matter how nervous she felt, she knew that she’d done everything she could. She knew she deserved this seat. And above all, she knew this vote was about more than her experience, or how she answered the senators’ questions. In the past 200 years, through 115 different Supreme Court justices, there had never been a black woman in the position. This was a vote about the future of America and how she could be leading the way in making great change.
Mr. McConnell, No.
Ms. Murkowski, Aye.
Mr. Romney, Aye.
Ketanji moved closer to the tv screen. President Biden took both of her hands in his.
Mr. Wicker, No.
Ms. Warren, Aye.
And then…the votes were in. It was 47 against, and 53 for… which meant she had won enough votes for confirmation! Ketanji Brown Jackson had just become the first Black female to ever serve on the Supreme Court of the United States!
|A bright flash from a camera brings Ketanji blinking back to the White House lawn. Back to this historic Spring day in Washington, D.C. as Ketanji gazes out at the crowd again she sees so many familiar faces, like her parents, the people who taught her that she could do anything she put her mind to. Like her husband and daughters, grinning with pride. Ketanji sees tears of joy and heads held high and so many beautiful shades of skin.
And then, it’s her turn to step up to the podium and speak.
“It is the greatest honor of my life to be here with you at this moment, standing before my wonderful family, many of my close friends, your distinguished staff and guests, and the American people.”
And this is where we begin and end our story, Rebels. Because Ketanji knows she’s here on stage, to celebrate not only her victory, but everyone’s.
This is about making dreams come true and changing the world. It’s about the next time a Rebel Girl goes to her guidance counselor and says she plans to be a judge one day… that girl can say – just like Ketanji Brown Jackson. It’s about bringing our country one step closer to equality for every American, no matter the shade of their skin.