Open Letter to "Soon-to-Be U.S. Supreme Court Justice" Ketanji Brown Jackson
Updated: Sep 5
April 13, 2022
Dear Judge Jackson,
I am writing this Open Letter to you to congratulate you on your confirmation as the first female African-American Justice in the 230-year history of the United States Supreme Court. I am so proud of you for your exemplary personal life and amazing professional career.
When you were born in 1972, I was completing my second year at the University of Alabama School of Law. I was admitted in September of 1970 as one of two black entering freshmen law students. I was the only black student in my section of 75 students. My fellow black student, George Jones, was alone in his section of 75 students. The racial atmosphere at the law school at the time was intense and extremely hostile.
I was lucky because Mr. Ramus Rhodes, the longtime janitor at the law school, became my best friend, mentor, "real" law school professor, and the man God sent to shepherd me through the longest and loneliest three years of my life. White students saw Mr. Rhodes as the "mascot" who played the organ on the law school's float during their drunken rivalry in the homecoming parade. I viewed Mr. Rhodes, who was a Stillman College-educated scholar working in the only job he could find upon graduation, as a giant among men.
Sometimes Our Personal and Professional Excellence is not Appreciated by the Beneficiaries of White Privilege
The most painful episode of racial discrimination I have experienced in my life occurred at the end of my 1971-72 school year. My Moot Court partner, John David Whetstone (who is white), and I worked all year to defeat every team we competed against in the fierce Moot Court competition that year. In the end, David and I were the last team standing in our student section. As finalists, David and I were scheduled to face off against the champions from the other student section for the final contest on Law Day in May of 1972.
I called my parents and proudly informed them that David and I had overcome all of the obstacles thrown in our path all year long and that we only had one team left to beat before we would win the Moot Court competition for 1971-72. My daddy, who was president of Alabama State University at the time, was ecstatic. My Momma was crying with tears of joy. They promised to drive to Tuscaloosa on Law Day to watch David and me win the final round.
Unbeknownst to David and me, after we defeated our opponents in the semi-final round, the law school's Moot Court Board met in secret and changed the rules and objective scoring system that governed the advancement of teams in the competition throughout the year. Without prior warning or an explanation, the Board: (a) abandoned its objective point scoring system, (b) reached back to revive the team we defeated in the semi-final round, and (c) replaced us with this defeated team in the final competition on Law Day.
When I learned of this racist action, I was devastated. Words cannot describe the hurt I felt inside. My parents were crushed, as well.
At that moment, all of the research, preparation, and hundreds of hours of hard work David and I had put into beating every team in our section during the 1971-72 school year was wiped out with the stroke of a pen.
It became readily apparent to us that the Moot Court Board did not want to showcase a black law student as one of the finalists who would argue in the chosen case before a distinguished panel of three federal judges, and do so in the presence of an auditorium filled with our law professors, students, and parents on Law Day.
This entire episode is documented in a Memorandum Dean Thomas Christopher wrote to my parents and posted on the law school's bulletin Board after David and I challenged our wrongful exclusion from the Law Day competition. [Click here to read Dean Christopher's Memorandum].
Throughout it all, David and I endured a torrid of hatred from some of the white law students as we competed and defeated all-white Moot Court teams, week after week. This hatred intensified during our appeal to Dean Christopher from the Board's racially-motivated decision to change the rules of competition and qualified as finalists under the original rules.
In the midst of this racial hatred, my parents and Mr. Rhodes coached me on how to stay focused and maintain my dignity in the face of the most painful racism I had personally experienced. Even though this even happened 50 years ago, but it still hurts me today.
Borne out this painful experience of racial discrimination was my lifelong close friendship with John David Whetstone. He is one of the greatest human beings I have ever known.
Fifty years ago, John David Whetstone had extraordinary courage when it counted the most. He fought by my side every step of the way. He never flinched in the heat of battle and he never backed down in the face of racism.
John David Whetstone was on the right side of history in 1972. His courage in that moment is a source of tremendous pride among his children, grandchildren, and extended family members today.
You Handled Your Confirmation Hearings With Dignity, Grace, and Class
As I watched your confirmation hearings in March and the Senate's vote on your confirmation on April 7, 2022, I thought about my unbearable experience with the Moot Court Board. I cried many nights over that experience. While it tested my faith in humanity, my faith in God never wavered.
When I saw you wipe tears from your eyes as several white Senators on the Judiciary Committee launched unrelenting character attacks against you and your distinguished judicial record, I felt your pain. There were times when I knew you were struggling to rise above the subtle racial insults that were hurled at you by misguided men like Lindsey Graham (R-S. Carolina), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Josh Hawley (R-Missouri). These men were pandering to the worst instincts in white Americans, but it did not work.
On April 7, 2022, I watched retiring Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) cast his "No" vote against your confirmation. Shelby graduated from the University of Alabama's law school in the early 1960s when it was all-white. Shelby was exempted from having to take and pass a Bar exam like you and me in order to get his law license. He benefited from a form of affirmative action called "diploma privilege" that existed for white law students before black students desegregated the law school.
Richard Shelby became a local prosecutor in Tuscaloosa and a U.S. Magistrate in Birmingham, where he served as a faithful and dedicated COINTELPRO law enforcement official for longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (who served in office from 1924 to 1972), Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Robert Shelton, and local white racists during the 1960s and early 1970s. Shelby persecuted thousands of innocent black men, women, and children as a committed COINTELPRO law enforcement official. To this day, Sen. Shelby is an unrepentant and unreformed white supremacist.
I also watched in sadness as Republican Sen. Tim Scott, an African-American from South Carolina, disgraced himself, his ancestors, and his family by voting against your confirmation. Scott did not want to disappoint Republican colleagues like Sen. Richard Shelby.
You were confirmed on a vote of 53 to 47 in a Senate session that was presided over by the first black female Vice President of the United States. Your confirmation resolution was signed by the first black female Secretary of the Senate.
What is more, I watched Utah Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) stand alone in the Republican section of the Senate chambers and give you a standing ovation after the confirmation vote. At that moment, Romney reminded me of John David Whetstone, who stood alone with me during my entire Moot Court ordeal.
I am extremely proud of the fact that the American people stood with you, as well. They overwhelmingly supported your nomination and confirmation. You have won their hearts and minds. You are likely the most popular public official in Washington today.
Like Justice Thurgood Marshall, you will be remembered forever by Americans of interracial goodwill for your stellar character, your impeccable legal credentials, your courage under fire, your poise along the road of racial adversity (then and now), and the favorable impact you will have on humanity. You were destined for greatness and you will certainly achieve it.
Celebrating the Moment
I am celebrating this momentous achievement in American history.
After my private celebration is over, I must return to the unfinished work of desegregating Alabama's 19-justice/judge appellate court system. In 2022, Alabama still has a nine-justice all-white Alabama Supreme Court, a five-judge all-white Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, and a five-judge all-white Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Alabama's appellate court apparatus is a direct result of all-white gubernatorial appointments for vacancies on these courts and the 1870 "Redeemer-era" system of at-large statewide elections that favors white voters.
According to the 2020 Census, Alabama has a 26% black population, black voting age population, and black registered voters population. Yet, its appellate courts are all white.
The state's appellate courts were all-white when I started practicing law in 1973, and they are all-white today. I am fighting hard to dismantle this celebrated bastion of white supremacy in Alabama. As expected, there is massive resistance by the Alabama Republican Party to black representation on these courts.
Sometimes today's Republican Party looks, sounds, and feels like the old White Citizens Councils that dominated the political landscape in Alabama and Mississippi during the 1960s.
I will not rest until Alabama's appellate courts look like the state's population.
I look forward to seeing you sworn-in as a Supreme Court Justice. Thurgood Marshall is smiling from Heaven at you.
The hand of God will always protect you where the finger of God leads you. Go forward and serve the people with your usual dignity and grace.
/s/Donald V. Watkins
Reg. No. 36223-001
Federal Prison Camp at La Tuna
P.O. Box 8000
Anthony, New Mexico 88021