Ketanji Brown Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr's colour blind society
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during an event celebrating her confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court with U.S. President Joe Biden on the South Lawn of the White House on April 08, 2022 in Washington, DC.

A merican Senator Chuck Grassley had a question for Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearings to be the first African American woman on the US Supreme Court.

Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wanted to know if she agreed with Martin Luther King Jr's vision that one day America would become a nation in which people are judged “not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.

What listeners might not have known about Grassley is that, while it appeared that he was holding up King as an example, he has a mixed history with King's legacy. Grassley is, in fact, the sole surviving US senator to have cast a “no” vote in 1983 on making Martin Luther King Jr's birthday a federal holiday.

Without missing a beat, Jackson delivered a poignant story about her own family and sidestepped Grassley's apparent move to use King's words to oppose the teaching of race and critical race theory in particular in public schools.

Her parents, she explained, attended racially segregated schools in Florida. One generation later, their daughter was able to attend integrated Florida pubic schools and sits before them as a US Supreme Court nominee.

“The fact that we had come that far was, to me,” Jackson testified, “a testament to the hope and the promise of this country.”

With their vote divided along partisan lines, the US Senate Judiciary Committee assured the confirmation of the first black woman in the 233-year history of the US's highest court. The fact that their vote occurred on April 4, 2022, a day remembered for the assassination 54 years ago of King, was also significant. The full Senate confirmed her nomination on April 7.

As a scholar of social justice movements, I believe that Jackson is the very dream that King envisioned. But he died before seeing the results of his non-violent movement for social justice.

Delivered on August 28, 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, the “I Have a Dream” speech is King's most-recited and best-known.

“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream,” King said. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Opponents of critical race theory, the academic framework that explains the relationship among race, racism and the law, have distorted King's message.

By recasting anti-racism as the new racism, conservative GOP leaders such as Grassley and Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, use King's words that advocated a colour-blind society as a critical part of their national messaging to advance legislation that bans the teachings of so-called divisive concepts.

“Critical race theory goes against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us, 'Don't judge us by the colour of our skin,' and now they're embracing it,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said.

Such distortions have been sharply challenged, most notably by Bernice King, one of King's four children.

“Do not take excerpts from my father,” she tweeted. “Study him holistically … for people to be able to misappropriate him this way is actually beyond insulting.”

In practical terms, Jackson's confirmation does not change the political ideologies on the nation's highest court. Jackson is a Democratic appointee nominated to replace a Democratic appointee Stephen Breyer.

For black women, at least, I believe the wait is over. What is significant about Jackson's confirmation is beyond the colour of her skin: She would become the only current justice who has spent time not only at prestigious law schools and corporate law firms but also representing clients as a federal public defender.

King knew that the Supreme Court was integral in setting precedent, creating change and protecting freedoms.

Though King was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, his dream of a colour-blind society is becoming a reality with the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the US Supreme Court.

— Republished from The Conversation under a creative commons licence


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