Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
–Frederick Douglass, 1857
This weekend, the Reverend Al Sharpton and his National Action Network are convening the “Measuring the Movement” confab. Incidentally, President Barack Obama is poised to make his second nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), in the wake of the announced resignation of Justice John Paul Stevens.
These might seem like two totally unrelated events, but they’re not. At least they shouldn’t be. In fact, in my mind, what better metric of Black progress is there for the Black opinion leaders meeting in New York this weekend than a successful campaign for the nomination of one who shares our life experience to sit on the highest court in the land?
After all, many of us shout, “No Justice, No Peace” in the face of police brutality, and we rail and rally against unfair sentencing laws and America’s shameful “prison industrial complex.” Well, this writer thinks we need to modify this call to action and very respectfully—yet emphatically—send this same message to President Obama.
How about this version, lest we be taken for granted: “No Black Justice, No Black Vote,” or a similar derivative.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that Black leaders issue an ultimatum to our beloved President Obama. Heaven forbid. What I am suggesting, however, is that we as a people take it “back to the old landmark,” as our elders say. Meaning, we must return to our tradition of marching and rallying for justice.
It’s ironic that many Black leaders—because we have an African American president— are now eschewing the very same tactics that led to the historic civil rights gains of the 1960’s and 70s. Meanwhile, Latinos, Jewish Americans, Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgenders—and even the Tea Baggers—have learned from our past victories and are now successfully waging campaigns to make their voices heard on the issues that matter most in their communities.
And we must do likewise. After all, this is the American way, is it not? Just as Latinos forcefully and pointedly lobbied and campaigned for a Latino on the Supreme Court, African-Americans must mount a serious campaign to have an African-American nominee, ideally, a woman.
And not just any Black woman will do. America needs an associate justice with the same philosophical leanings as Justice Stevens—or better still, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was never really replaced.
Many names have been bandied about, most notably former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, although many believe that the Washington Post article detailing her friendship with Clarence Thomas doomed her chances of being nominated by a Democratic American president.
The Honorable Ann Claire Williams, 60, a United States Circuit Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, has also been mentioned as a possible candidate in some recent reports. The internationally recognized jurist, first nominated by President Reagan to the U. S. District Court in 1985 and elevated by President Clinton to the Seventh Circuit in 1999, acted as a member of training delegations who traveled to International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania and also for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the Hague.
Another prospect is the recently confirmed Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, 58, of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and a former Rhode Island Superior Court justice. When President Obama nominated her to the appellate court last year, a White House press release noted that “while on the bench, Judge Thompson chaired the Court’s Ad Hoc Task Force on Limited English Speaking Litigants, which was instrumental in the Superior Court establishing an Office of Court Interpreters to ensure that all limited English-speaking litigants have a fuller understanding of judicial proceedings.”
And if President Obama is looking for a non-jurist, as some have speculated, then there are numerous highly qualified African-American women within the academy or among the ranks of the nation’s public defenders and/or prosecutors.
One noteworthy and meritorious African-American legal academician is Dr. Phoebe A. Haddon, 59, dean of the University of Maryland School of Law, the first African American female to head the 186 year-old enclave. The U of Maryland Daily Record reports that “one of the first things Phoebe A. Haddon saw when she visited the University of Maryland School of Law during its dean search was ‘Thurgood Marshall’s Early Career in Maryland: 1933-1937,’ an exhibit in the library that bears the name of the late Supreme Court justice.”
Perhaps this was a harbinger of things to come for Haddon, a fourth-generation lawyer whose great-grandfather, A.W.E. Bassette, was also a lawyer/educator who is believed to have “founded the first school for freed slaves in Hampton, Virginia,” where an elementary school bears his name, in recognition of his 39 years of teaching, beginning in 1876.
Indeed, it is clear that never has there been a wider pool—and never will the time be riper—for the appointment of a progressive Black woman to the SCOTUS. Particularly since the Pew Research Center reports that “overall, among all racial, ethnic and gender groups, [B]lack women had the highest voter turnout rate in November’s  election [68.8 percent]—a first.” This should yield real, bankable—and measurable— capital for a loyal and stalwart constituency.
I first wrote of this in “It is High Time for a Black Woman on the High Court.” At that time— just after the Sotomayor nomination—one reader rightfully commented that I should have written before the nomination. Well, this time I am imploring Black leaders to not wait until after the fact to make our voices heard on this crucial matter.
One thing is certain, if we don’t ask for it, it will never happen. The first step is to believe that we can do this. Naysayers must remember the sage words of then candidate Obama: “Yes, we can.”
President Obama’s historic perch on Pennsylvania Avenue bears out his prophetic proclamation—thanks, in large part, to record Black voter turnout. Now, thoughtful Black folks are wondering just what, long-term, an Obama presidency means for African-Americans, beyond the symbolic, as I wrote in my “Guest Editorial” to a special issue of the Journal of Black Studies, “Barack Obama’s Improbable Election &The Question of Race and Racism in Contemporary America.”
So, let’s give President Obama the political cover that he will need to make what would no doubt be an historic and courageous nomination. And, mind you, I know that we have, in large part, taken our activism from the streets, into…more respectable corridors, but let us not forget Frederick Douglass’ storied mantra: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Or put another way, “No Justice, No Peace.”