When 16-year-old Samiya Williams first saw Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson standing next to President Biden as he formally announced her nomination in February, she knew that one day she would follow in Jackson’s footsteps.
“My dreams have just gotten so much bigger, it seems like overnight,” Williams told CNN in an interview on Sunday.
Williams is among a new generation of young Black women, who for the first time, will come of age seeing a Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court. If confirmed, they’ll know first-hand of her seat on the bench, as though it was normal for a Black woman to occupy it.
But it is not. And to many, a Black woman taking up that space has been a long time coming. For 233 years, no woman of African American or Black descent has served on the highest court in the land. And that glaring omission of the unique and quintessentially American lived experience of the Black woman is reflected in the sheer lack of Black attorneys in the US. According to the 2021 American Bar Association, African-Americans in 2021 made up only 5% of the nation’s lawyers, no doubt Black women make up a share even smaller than that.
Those low numbers help to reinforce a proverbial Black household saying, often uttered to young Black girls by the Black women that came before them. That you must be twice as good in everything you do to get half of what they have. It’s a blatant nod to the racism and sexism Black women face in the world that leads to constant setbacks which only break with fierce perseverance and sometimes – a bit of luck.
But in Jackson’s nomination, young Black girls who spoke to CNN, see a woman who embodies that exemplary goodness and perseverance, shinning brighter after every round of questioning she survives.
So Williams is among a cohort of Black women who strive to persevere. And through that perseverance, hope to expand those bleak numbers, widening America’s share of Black women attorneys and potentially judges now guided by the new mold set in stone by Judge Jackson.
“I see myself in you,” Williams said Monday, reading a letter addressed to the Supreme Court nominee on the steps of the body itself, in a rally organized by Black women led groups to support Jackson ahead of her hearings.
“I appreciate that you have a name that people must take their time to pronounce. I appreciate the tight coils in your locs that rhyme with mine, in my braids. I am fueled knowing that the journey it took to get to this place has many similarities to the one I am on right now as a 16-year-old,” she said to raucous applause.
In her testimony Monday, Jackson invoked the name of Constance Baker Motley, the first African American woman to be appointed to the federal bench just four years before Jackson was born. Jackson has credited Motley as a “true inspiration” to her own path.
“And like Judge Motley, I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building – ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ – are a reality and not just an idea,” Jackson said in her bright purple suit.
Rep. Terri Sewell, the first Black woman elected to Congress in Alabama and first Black woman partner at a prestigious law firm in Alabama, said what’s happening now with young girls and Jackson, is part of an evolution that Motley helped spur.
“You have to sometimes see it to be it and that visual is the kind of spark that really catapults a whole other generation into realizing the many possibilities in life that being in a place like America affords us,” Sewell told CNN in an interview Tuesday.
“That doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own challenges to get there. But if she could do it, the thought is, well, maybe I can do it too, right?”
For years of her young life Williams had aspired to be a civil rights attorney, inspired by the work she watched her own aunt do. But she says a combination of watching her mother, She Will Rise co-founder Sabriya Williams, fight for a Black woman to be nominated to the Supreme Court and learning more about Jackson’s background, made it all click.
In Washington, groups like She Will Rise, National Women’s Law Center Action Fund, Win With Black Women and the Black Women’s Roundtable among other Black women-led organizations used their rising power to hold Biden to his initial pledge nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme court and have rallied behind her since.
They’ve held social media events in the runup, rallies during the week of hearings and an in-person and virtual watch party on Monday that had more than 3,000 women in attendance. Karen Finney, a senior Democratic strategist and CNN contributor a part of those effort, said exposure like this is what changes possibilities for Black girls.
“Judge Jackson’s nomination opens a new chapter in our nation’s history, where things our ancestors and many of us could only dream are now seen as possible in the eyes of all our children and for Black girls,” Finney told CNN. “It says there is no stereotype or box that can contain you, because no dream is too big.”
And many are taking that notion to heart.
“I want to be able to make it seem like my mom’s work has paid off,” Samiya Williams said. “I want to leave that kind of impact, help with changing our society and making it more equitable for young Black women and girls.”
So, on Monday, Williams was not only speaking to Jackson but also to the many young girls in the crowd that day, like 5-year-old Malia Jackson, who stood on the sidewalk of the Supreme Court clutching a #confirmKBJ poster. Her mother, Lauryl Jackson, said she brought her youngest Malia, oldest daughter Morgan and middle son to the rally to see for themselves that “these things are possible.” And to a degree, it’s working.
“My youngest daughter actually was asked to do something for career day, and she selected a judge. And I think that’s due to the news of Judge Jackson,” Jackson told CNN, about her 5-year-old. And her older sister, 14-year-old Morgan Jackson, put the stakes of this week in succinct terms when asked if she had ever thought about being a judge, saying “I think if she gets confirmed, it’s more of a possibility for me and girls like me.”
And all the possibility and promise her nomination exemplifies has reached even Jackson herself, who said on Wednesday she was “touched,” by the support. When offering advice to the legions who will undoubtedly come after her, Jackson told a story about her first months at Harvard University, so far from her native Florida.
“I was really questioning um, “Do I belong here? Can I make it in this environment?” And I was walking through the yard in the evening and a Black woman I did not know was passing me on the sidewalk. And she looked at me and I guess she knew how I was feeling and she leaned over as we crossed and said, ‘Persevere,’” Jackson recounted. “I would tell them to persevere.”
Thirty-nine-year-old Ebony Cormier did not grow up seeing the possibility of a Black woman on the Supreme Court. In fact, living in Ennis, Texas, Cormier does not remember seeing a Black attorney, let alone a Black woman attorney, at all.
“Claire Huxtable was probably the first (Black) attorney that I ever saw and like, that’s TV,” she said.
Still on Monday, she sat in a building on Capitol Hill in tears. Cormier had just watched Jackson sit with her hands atop of her desk and a measured smile on her face for hours and finish the first day of her Senate hearing, fully aware of the glass ceiling she had just shattered.
A third-year part-time student at Southern University Law Center, one of only six historically Black law schools in the country, and mother of four, Cormier traveled to DC with her school in partnership with Demand Justice, a Democratic group focused on judicial nominations.
“It was surreal,” she told CNN. For a portion of the opening statements, Cormier got to sit in person in the hearing room at the Hart Senate Office Building, a first-hand witness to history. What she saw and heard Monday moved her to tears.
“I got a little emotional when she started talking about her girls. I have two girls and I can’t wait to share these kinds of moments and have them understand the gravity,” Cormier said, wiping her face. She was referring to remarks Jackson made about balancing her career with being a present mom for her two daughters.
Cormier knew at a young age that she wanted to become an attorney because she wanted to help people. But when time came to declare a major in college, she chose accounting instead because several high school teachers told her it would be an easier career to achieve. It surely fueled the same sense of self-doubt Jackson likely felt when her own guidance counselor suggested she forgo an application to Harvard and settle on a more achievable choice.
And it wasn’t until Cormier was 23, that a dream deferred became a possibility, after her old brother got caught up with the legal system and eventually sentenced to prison.
“Just dealing with the whole criminal justice system throughout that process, I knew if we had more money to get him a better attorney, it would have been a different outcome,” she said.
From that moment, she pushed herself to learn everything about the criminal justice system – changing her major and acting as a de facto legal representative for all her family members and close friends when an issue arose. Still, it took her more than 13 years to finally enter law school. But she did make it, excelling in a field she always knew she wanted to. And now watching Jackson do it, Cormier’s options once again feel limitless too.
“I want to be a judge,” Cormier said, processing the idea in real time, one of the many options ahead of her. “I see it now. And before, I don’t know that I did.”
Makaila Iman Davenport, a 25-year-old second-year law school student at University of Wisconsin Law, said the “twice as good,” Black proverb was drilled into her head by her mom and dad, a middle school assistant principle and practicing government lawyer respectively, who always told her she could be whatever she wanted to be.
“It’s one thing to hear it, but it’s another thing to really see it and see it fully through fruition,” Davenport told CNN in an interview. But this week, she’s seeing the double, sometime triple standards Black women must navigate playing out in Jackson’s hearings.
“She’s probably one of the most qualified” nominees, she said. “Everyone always says it’s like, you have to be twice as good to get to the same place. It’s showing that, (Jackson has) had all these positions, she’s had all these opinions, she’s written everything that she’s done, and yet some people are still questioning whether she’s qualified strictly because she’s a Black woman,” Davenport said to CNN in an interview Tuesday.
Jessica Fullilove, a 31-year-old Chicago native who now attends Northern Illinois University College of Law, said she first believed she could be a lawyer while watching another accomplished lawyer, former first lady Michelle Obama represent her husband Barack and by extension, the country.
“She came from the same South Chicago roots that I had. If she could do it, why can’t I? I really hope that that resonates with every young black girl who thinks that she can.”
Fullilove called watching Jackson answer questions on the second day of her hearing, a “prolific” experience, knowing that she personifies what it means to be a Black woman, from her hair, her skin and her demeanor.
Both she and Davenport attended a second day of Demand Justice watch parties, in conjunction with the National Black Law Student Association, where they both are in leadership and use their power to bring more Black women into the field.
Sewell’s hope is that by seeing Judge Jackson on the bench, it expands what’s possible.
“I think that if the next generation of young women can see the work that we’ve done and automatically see themselves in our place, then perhaps they can become more stratospheric and go for an even higher goal,” Sewell said. “It’s not enough to be the first. We have to make sure that we’re not the last.”
Possibilities expanding: How young Black women see Jackson’s nomination | CNN Politics