U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on Friday called for a commitment to remember and teach the history of racism and violence in the United States as she commemorated the deaths of four Black girls killed by white supremacists in a Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing.
Jackson delivered the keynote address at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where members of the Ku Klux Klan carried out the bombing 60 years ago on Sept. 15, 1963.
“I know that atrocities like the one we are memorializing today are difficult to remember and relive, but I also know that it is dangerous to forget them,” said Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the nine-member court, who completed her first full term in June.
Jackson used part of her speech as a warning against “complacency and ignorance.”
“Learning about our country’s history can be painful, but history is also our best teacher,” she said. “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? We have to own even the darkest parts of our past, understand them, and vow never to repeat them.”
The 1963 dynamite bombing killed 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, and 11-year-old Denise McNair. The girls’ deaths shocked the nation and were instrumental to the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Jackson’s speech comes at a time of conflict in several states over the teaching of history in schools, especially in Florida, which has restricted some educational efforts regarding racism, slavery and LGBTQ rights.
In July, the state sparked controversy by approving new guidelines on teaching Black history, including how enslaved people acquired skills for “personal benefit.” Florida, led by Republican 2024 presidential candidate Governor Ron DeSantis, is one of several states that have banned the teaching “critical race theory,” which studies racial bias in American laws and institutions.
Earlier this year, Florida barred the teaching of Advanced Placement class in African American Studies, prompting over 800 academics and administrators to condemn it as censorship and attack on academic freedom.
Jackson’s speech echoed her dissent last June to the court’s landmark ruling effectively ending college and university affirmative action policies in admissions.
Jackson portrayed that ruling, powered by the court’s six conservative members, as “ostrich-like,” and traced the history of racism that persisted from slavery to the present day, preventing Black Americans from gaining wealth and excluding them from opportunities in education and professional life.
“Knowledge emboldens people and it frees them,” Jackson said on Friday. “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.”