(WASHINGTON) — Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on Friday delivered a stirring defense of the need to educate American school children about the nation’s dark history of racial inequality and violence in a still-ongoing battle for civil rights.
“The work of our time is maintaining that hard-won freedom, and to do that, we’re going to need the truth — the whole truth — about our past,” Jackson said in a speech at the Birmingham, Alabama, 16th Street Baptist Church, where a bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan killed four young girls and injured dozens of others 60 years ago.
“We must teach it to our children and preserve it for theirs,” Jackson said. “Knowledge of the past is what enables us to mark our forward progress. If we’re going to continue to move forward as a nation, we can’t allow concern about discomfort to displace knowledge, truth, or history.”
The remarks by the nation’s first Black female justice come as policy makers in several states, led by Florida, have issued controversial new curriculum standards for Black history that some critics have said whitewashed the past and advanced misconceptions about slavery.
GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis has defended Florida’s curriculum while campaigning for president, particularly the notion that slavery benefited Black Americans.
“They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into things later in life,” DeSantis said during a news conference in July.
The governor further defended the curriculum changes in an interview with Fox News in August contending the curriculum’s wording lets teachers show “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
“That particular passage wasn’t saying that slavery was a benefit. It was saying there was resourcefulness, and people acquired skills in spite of slavery, not because of it,” he said.
While Jackson did not directly address any of the policies, she warned that downplaying “atrocities” from the country’s history would be “dangerous.”
“Yes, our past is filled with too much violence, too much hatred, too much prejudice, but can we really say that we are not confronting those same evils now?” she said. “We have to own even the darkest parts of our past, understand them and vow never to repeat them.” Only doing so can “guarantee our democracy’s ultimate survival,” she added.
The rare public appearance by Jackson, who recently completed her first term on the bench, was a highly symbolic moment in a state that was an epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. She said it was her first visit to Alabama.
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, garnered worldwide attention and outrage for the shocking loss of young life at a time when Black Americans and their allies were peacefully mobilizing for social change.
Jackson, a mother of two teenage daughters, reflected poignantly about the magnitude of the loss.
“Those girls were just getting started. They could have broken barriers. They could have shattered ceilings. They could have grown up to be doctors or lawyers or judges appointed to serve on the highest court in our land. They could have been any one of us. And we could have been any one of them,” she said.
Jackson, the daughter of public school teachers, was raised in Miami, Florida, going on to attend Harvard Law School and serve as a federal public defender and later federal appeals court judge.
President Joe Biden nominated Jackson to replace Justice Stephen Breyer in February 2022. She was confirmed by the Senate in April 2022 by a vote of 53-47, with three Republicans joining all Democrats to support her.
Reflecting on her appointment, Jackson called it a ” bold marker of our nation’s collective progress” and a sign that ” we all share in the promise of our democracy.”
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