The news of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg‘s death has rattled a nation for a number of different reasons as the 87-year-old champion of women’s rights died Friday following a years-long battle with metastatic pancreas cancer. Amid the outpouring of condolences, there were immediate partisan concerns over who would fill her coveted seat on the highest court in the land, and how that process might play out with less than two months before Election Day.
The Justice who was also affectionately referred to as the Notorious RBG — a play on the rapper Biggie Smalls’ moniker — was remembered for being a reliably outspoken liberal voice on the bench and helping to shape the modern era of women’s rights. But Ginsburg’s death also drew attention to Pauli Murray, the relatively unheralded Howard University-trained Black and queer lawyer whose pioneering legal arguments in the 1960s comparing gender discrimination and racial discrimination were credited with inspiring RBG to do the same.
It appeared to be one of the first instances documenting Ginsburg’s relationship with Black America — or, at least a Black American. But it would be far from her last as she went on to an illustrious 27-year career as a United States Supreme Court Justice; a career that had its ups as well as its downs when it came to the topic of race.
The ‘Thurgood Marshall of gender equality law’
The NAACP mourned Ginsburg’s death and defended her as a fearless champion of equality.
“When President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson recalled in a press released Friday, “he called her the ‘Thurgood Marshall of gender equality law.’” Marshall was, of course, the first Black Supreme Court Justice.
Black law clerks. All two of them
But that high praise for Ginsburg infamously resulted in part with her having only had two Black clerks in total during her decades as a judge. That included one clerk during her 13 years on the D.C. Circuit Court — a duration where the National Review reminded its readers “she had never had a single black law clerk, intern, or secretary. Out of 57 employees, zero blacks.” That unfortunate trend continued after she became a Supreme Court Justice, when she “hired only one black clerk among the more than 100 clerks she has had.”
Ginsburg also raised quite a few eyebrows over her negative response to Colin Kaepernick‘s silent kneeling protest during the national anthem.
“I think it’s really dumb of them,” Ginsburg said in 2016 when asked for her thoughts on the protests before continuing later: “I think it’s dumb and disrespectful. … I think it’s a terrible thing to do, but I wouldn’t lock a person up for doing it. I would point out how ridiculous it seems to me to do such an act.”
Kaepernick, whose kneeling protest has been all but officially adapted by the entire NFL and its players this current season, said at the time that he was dismayed at her response.
“It is disappointing to hear a Supreme Court justice call a protest against injustices and oppression ‘stupid, dumb’ in reference to players doing that,” he said. “I was reading an article and it refers to white critique of Black protests and how they try to de-legitimize it by calling it ‘idiotic, dumb, stupid,’ things of that nature, so they can sidestep the real issue. As I was reading that I saw more and more truth how this has been approached by people in power, and white people in power in particular.”
She later backed away from her comments about the anthem protest.
“Barely aware of the incident or its purpose, my comments were inappropriately dismissive and harsh,” Ginsburg said in a prepared statement. “I should have declined to respond.”
SCOTUS gutting the Voting Rights Act
RBG dissented vehemently as the conservative-led Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a key component of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the historic law that in 1965 abolished restrictions on Black Americans voting in federal, state and local elections.
“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” Ginsburg wrote in response. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed. “In the Court’s view, the very success of §5 of the Voting Rights Act demands its dormancy.”
She later lamented in her dissent: “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA.” Ginsberg wrote.
Earlier that same year during oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder — the challenge to the Voting Rights Act at the Supreme Court — Ginsburg lectured Shelby County attorney Bert W. Rein abut voter suppression and its effect on minorities.
“Mr. Rein, you keep emphasizing over and over again in your brief and you said it a couple of times this morning. Congress was well aware that [voter] registration was no longer the problem,” she said at the time. “This legislative record is replete with what they call second generation devices. Congress said up front: We know that the registration is fine. That is no longer the problem. But the discrimination continues in other forms.”
When discussing the case during an interview with MSNBC in 2015, she said: “We’ve come a long way from the days where there was state enforced segregation. But we still have a way to go.”
Vann Newkirk of the Atlantic put it another way in 2018: “voting became rapidly more difficult after the Shelby County decision, particularly for poor and elderly black people and Latinos.”
In a 2014 interview, RBG prioritized and defended Black women when discussing poor women’s access to reproductive choice. She recalled a speech she was giving on the topic in the 1980s when she said a Black man commented, “We know what you lily-white women are all about. You want to kill black babies.”
“That’s how some in the African American community regarded the choice movement. So I think it would be helpful if civil rights groups homed in on the impact of the absence of choice on African American women. That would be useful,” she told the New Republic.
In the same interview, she also had more glowing words for Thurgood Marshall, whose advocacy for Black people has been compared to RBG’s work on behalf of women.
“He was my model as a lawyer,” she said before putting their legal existences into their proper perspectives: “The difference between Thurgood Marshall and me, most notably, is that my life was never in danger. His was. He would go to a Southern town to defend people, some of them falsely accused, and he literally didn’t know whether he would be alive at the end of the day. I never faced that kind of problem.”
Refusing to step down
Even though there were calls for Ginsburg to retire while President Barack Obama was in office — so he could name her successor — she was adamant about remaining on the bench.
“I will step down when I feel I can no longer do the job full steam,” she said in 2015.
Rest In Power: Notable Black Folks We Lost In 2020
1. Johnny Nash, chart-topping singer, 801 of 75
2. Gale Sayers, former Chicago Bears star and football legend, 77Source:Getty 2 of 75
3. Pamela Hutchinson, singer, 61Source:Getty 3 of 75
4. Steve Carter, playwright, 904 of 75
5. Roy Hammond, singer, 815 of 75
6. Toots Hibbert, reggae singer, 77Source:Getty 6 of 75
7. Lou Brock, baseball legend, 817 of 75
8. Sylvester Francis, cultural historian, 73Source:YouTube/Mike Yearling 8 of 75
9. James S. Jackson, psychologist9 of 75
10. John Thompson, basketball coaching legend, 78Source:Getty 10 of 75
11. Chadwick Boseman, actor, 43Source:WENN 11 of 75
12. Chi Chi DeVayne, reality TV star, 34Source:Getty 12 of 75
13. Bob Ryland, first Black tennis pro, 10013 of 75
14. Herman Cain, former presidential candidate, 7414 of 75
15. Stanley Robinson, former college basketball star, 3215 of 75
16. John Lewis, civil rights icon and longtime Congressman, 80Source:Getty 16 of 75
17. Rev. C.T. Vivian, civil rights pioneer associated with Martin Luther King, 95Source:Getty 17 of 75
18. Jas 'JasFly' Waters, TV writer, 3918 of 75
19. Wes Unseld, NBA Hall of Famer, 74Source:Getty 19 of 75
20. Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, former White House butler, 9120 of 75
21. Shad Gaspard, pro wrestler, 39Source:Getty 21 of 75
22. Gregory Tyree Boyce, actor, 30Source:Getty 22 of 75
23. Bob Watson, former MLB star and manager, 74Source:Getty 23 of 75
24. Fred L. Davis, civil rights activist and Memphis official, 8624 of 75
25. Ty, Nigerian rapper in the UK, 4725 of 75
26. Jimmy Glenn, boxing trainer, 89Source:Getty 26 of 75
27. Heyward Dotson, Columbia University basketball legend, 7127 of 75
28. Betty Wright, singer, 66Source:Getty 28 of 75
29. Little Richard, rock n' roll pioneer, 87Source:Getty 29 of 75
30. Andre Harrell, hip-hop executive, 59Source:Getty 30 of 75
31. Bob Andy, reggae singer, 75Source:Getty 31 of 75
32. Tony Allen, legendary African drummer, 79Source:Getty 32 of 75
33. Al Edwards, former Texas State Rep. and Juneteenth champion, 8333 of 75
34. Stezo, rapper and pioneering hip-hop dancer, 5134 of 75
35. Mike Huckaby, techno and house music pioneer and DJ, 5435 of 75
36. Don "Campbellock" Campbell, creator of locking dance style, 6936 of 75
37. Cheryl A. Wall, literary scholar, 7137 of 75
38. Gil Bailey, radio pioneer38 of 75
39. Grace F. Edwards, author, 8739 of 75
40. Samuel Hargress Jr., owner of legendary Harlem nightclub, 8340 of 75
41. Tarvaris Jackson, former NFL quarterback, 36Source:Getty 41 of 75
42. Chynna Marie Rogers, model turned rapper, 2542 of 75
43. Ahmed Ismail Hussein, Somali singer, 9243 of 75
44. Earl G. Graves, Sr., founder of Black Enterprise, 85Source:Getty 44 of 75
45. Bobby Mitchell, NFL player, 8445 of 75
46. Bill Withers, singer, 81Source:Getty 46 of 75
47. Ellis Marsalis Jr., legendary jazz pianist, 85Source:Getty 47 of 75
48. Wallace Roney, jazz trumpeter, 59Source:Getty 48 of 75
49. Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, civil right pioneer, 99Source:Getty 49 of 75
50. Emma Cooper-Harris, first African American Mayor of Anguilla, Mississippi50 of 75
51. Fred "Curly" Neal, Harlem Globetrotters legend, 77Source:Getty 51 of 75
52. Rev. Darius L. Swann, civil rights activist, 9552 of 75
53. Airickca Gordon-Taylor, civil rights activist and Emmett Till's relative, 5053 of 75
54. Manu Dibango, saxophonist, 86Source:Getty 54 of 75
55. Barbara C. Harris, Episcopal Bishop, 89Source:Getty 55 of 75
56. Roger Mayweather, boxing champion and trainer, 58Source:Getty 56 of 75
57. Josie Harris, former longtime girlfriend of Floyd Mayweather, 4057 of 75
58. Barbara Neely, author, 7858 of 75
59. Danny Tidwell, dancer, 3559 of 75
60. Sam "The Man" Burns, DC house music DJ, diesSource:facebook 60 of 75
61. McCoy Tyner, legendary jazz pianist, 81Source:Getty 61 of 75
62. Katherine Johnson, 10162 of 75
63. B. Smith, 7063 of 75
64. Pop Smoke, 20Source:Getty 64 of 75
65. Ja'Net DuBois, 74Source:Getty 65 of 75
66. Esther Scott, 66Source:Getty 66 of 75
67. Nathaniel Jones, former federal judge, 9367 of 75
68. Kobe Bryant, NBA legend, 41Source:Getty 68 of 75
69. Jimmy Heath jazz saxophonist, 93Source:Getty 69 of 75
70. Yolanda Carr, mother of Atatiana JeffersonSource:S. Lee Merritt 70 of 75
71. Roscoe Vance, journalist, 7171 of 75
72. Nick Gordon, ex-boyfriend of Bobbi Kristina, 30Source:Getty 72 of 75
Examining Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Complicated Legacy On Race was originally published on newsone.com