Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson urges Americans to confront ‘uncomfortable’ history of racist violence

Her address in Alabama commemorates a white supremacist attack that galvanised the civil rights movement

Alex Woodward
Friday 15 September 2023 19:31 BST
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Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks at 60th anniversary of KKK bombing

The first-ever Black woman to serve on the US Supreme Court has urged Americans to confront “uncomfortable” truths about the nation’s past and its legacy of racist violence as she addressed a congregation recognising the 60th anniversary of a lethal act of white supremacist terror.

US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s unsparing remarks from Birmingham, Alabama, on 15 September reflected on the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls — 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins — and galvanised a civil rights movement facing threats of racist violence.

“If we are going to continue to move forward as a nation, we cannot allow concerns about discomfort to displace knowledge, truth or history. It is certainly the case that parts of this country’s story can be hard to think about,” Ms Jackson said in prepared remarks to a church congregation, joining pastors and other officials commemorating the attack and its aftermath.

“I know that atrocities like the one we are memorialising today are difficult to remember and relive,” she added. “But I also know that it is dangerous to forget them.”

Democratic US Rep Terri Sewell, Alabama’s only Black member of Congress, hailed her district encompassing Birmingham, Selma and other southern civil rights landmarks as “America’s civil rights district” — one which is currently embroiled in a constitutional battle that has reached the Supreme Court.

In a landmark ruling earlier this year, the Supreme Court determined that the state’s Republican-drawn, gerrymandered congressional map discriminated against Black voters by packing most of the state’s Black residents, who make up more than a quarter of the state’s population and are overwhelmingly more likely to vote Democratic, into one single congressional district out of seven.

Alabama state lawmakers were ordered to redraw the map, but defiant GOP leaders drafted a second map that largely maintained the status quo. Earlier this month, a three-judge federal court panel said that it is “deeply troubled” that the state approved a map that it “readily admits” does not meet its obligations to the constitution.

Justice Jackson was introduced on Friday by former US Senator Doug Jones, who successfully prosecuted two of the four men responsible for the attack — Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry — decades later, in 2001 and 2022, when he was a US attorney.

Robert Chambliss was convicted on murder charges in 1977. Herman Cash died in 1994 and was never charged in connection with the attack.

US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson addresses an audience at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on 15 September to commemorate the 60th anniversary of a Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four Black children.
US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson addresses an audience at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on 15 September to commemorate the 60th anniversary of a Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four Black children. (AP)

In her remarks, Ms Jackson stressed “what it’s going to take” to defend the “core constitutional values” affirmed by previous generations in an ongoing fight for equal rights.

“Pay careful attention to what we know: oppressors of every stripe, from the slave master to the dictator, have recognised for centuries that knowledge is a powerful tool,” she said.

“They have seen that once acquired it can be wielded, and once wielded it is transformative,” she added. “Knowledge is transformative and it frees them. The work of our time is maintaining that hard-earned freedom, and to do that, we need the truth, the whole truth, about our past. We must teach it to our children and preserve it for theirs.”

America must own “even the darkest parts of our past, understand them and vow never to repeat them,” she added. “We must not shield our eyes. We must not shrink away lest we lose it all.”

Her address gestured at a sweeping effort among Republican officials and right-wing groups to restrict honest discussions of race and racism in classrooms across the country, from campaigns targeting libraries to dozens of state-level bills outlawing so-called “woke” education and “critical race theory” concepts, referring to a legal framework to examine systemic racism that opponents have invoked to broadly restrict discussion of social justice issues.

The justice’s remarks also follow a reported surge in hate crimes — which have steadily risen from year to year, including a 12 per cent spike from 2020 to 2021 — and a swell of right-wing violence and extremism-fuelled killings.

Criminal cases targeting Donald Trump and efforts to subvert the 2020 presidential election also strike at the heart of voter suppression efforts threatening a hard-fought right to vote, while a movement amplifying bogus conspiracy theories and false narratives that undermine voting rights continues to grip state legislatures and members of Congress.

Kristen Clarke, the assistant US attorney for civil rights at the US Department of Justice, told the congregation that “racially motivated hate crimes are a stain on our nation’s history” as she recommitted herself to “vigorously defending civil rights in any way we can” and to “dispel the discord of hatred and prejudice.”

A sign outside Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on 15 September as a congregation hears from US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, among other US officials, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of a KKK bombing that killed four Black children.
A sign outside Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on 15 September as a congregation hears from US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, among other US officials, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of a KKK bombing that killed four Black children. (AP)

“The killing of the four little girls focused America’s eyes on Birmingham, bringing into sharp clarity the injustices that sparked the Civil Rights Movement,” Rep Sewell wrote in a column for Newsweek on 15 September to coincide with the anniversary of the church bombing. “Their premature and senseless deaths awakened the slumbering conscience of America and inspired generations to demand change.”

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 “proved that their sacrifice was not in vain,” she added.

“Today, as extremists seek to whitewash our history, rewrite our textbooks, and roll back our progress, it has never been more critical to ensure that the legacy of the four little girls lives on in America’s story,” Ms Sewell wrote.

Should America fail to learn from its past, “we are doomed to repeat it,” she added.

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