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At Harvard, Ketanji Brown Jackson fought injustices but kept a steely academic focus

Ketanji Brown Jackson.Tom Williams/Associated Press

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — When a Confederate flag was hung from the window of a dormitory at Harvard University more than 30 years ago, members of the Black Students Association saw it as an attempt to tell them they did not belong there.

They sprang into action, “being vocal, agitating, militating, marching, doing all that great stuff,” Antoinette Coakley, one of the students, recalled recently. But the voice of another member — Ketanji Brown, a classmate who was soon to become one of Coakley’s best friends — cut through the noise.

“Ketanji said: ‘Wait a minute, as we’re doing this, we’re missing out on classes. As we’re fighting against this injustice, we’re actually doing them a service because we’re going to be failing,’” Coakley, now a law professor at Northeastern University, recalled.

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“So we protested, but we made sure we were in class,” she added. “We were going to show them that by showing up the way that we did — excellently — that they were wrong.”

The Confederate flag incident was one of several at Harvard in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a tense debate about whether it was a justifiable form of free speech roiled the campus. The university administration ultimately decided it could not force students to take down the flag, citing free speech, but encouraged students “to take more account of the feelings and sensitivities of others.’’

Coakley and other longtime friends from Harvard said the reaction of their classmate, now Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, was emblematic of how she navigated one of the most elite and white institutions in the country — after being discouraged from even applying. In the end, her experience at Harvard illustrates how Jackson, 51, has long recognized how America’s conflicting views of race and justice shape the world around her, but has embraced her identity while refusing to let affronts to it distract her.

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Now, that path has taken her where no Black woman has ever gone in American history, to confirmation hearings for an appointment to the Supreme Court. In almost every other way, Jackson is of the mold of justices who came before her — a widely admired, Harvard-educated overachiever with a respected record as a federal judge.

But it is her race and gender — and how they might influence her judicial views — that have dominated discussion of her nomination, in part because of President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to appoint a Black woman to the court.

In this sense, at least, it may be familiar territory.

“She’s fearless in a world where it’s sometimes scary to be fearless,” said Lisa Fairfax, who was one of Jackson’s college roommates and is now a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the weeks since her nomination, conservative pundits have overtly attacked her qualifications, and Republicans have cast her nomination as a win for a “radical” ideological agenda. Some Republican senators have subtly suggested that Biden’s nomination amounted to reverse discrimination.

Days before the president announced Jackson as his nominee, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., called it an “irony” that the Supreme Court was hearing cases challenging affirmative action “while adding someone who is the beneficiary of this sort of quota.”

Her roots at Harvard, where she spent a total of seven years as an undergraduate and law student, will most likely come under the microscope. So will her role, since 2016, as a member of the university’s Board of Overseers. The university describes the board as “critical to the governance of Harvard,” with each member “expected to advance the interests of the university as whole.” ​

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Among other things, conservatives have been quietly building a case to suggest that Jackson would have a conflict of interest in a potentially landmark case challenging Harvard’s use of race as a factor in undergraduate admissions.

If confirmed, Jackson would be the eighth justice in the court’s history to attend both Harvard College and Harvard Law, and the fifth graduate of the law school to sit on the current court.

But many of her friends and classmates say it is not so much Jackson’s degrees from Harvard that have prepared her for history, and potentially historic cases, but how she earned them: by proving herself through hard work and a steely focus, and by navigating exclusive spaces with curiosity and conviction.

Among her core beliefs, they say, is that embracing one’s own identity is not antithetical to acknowledging and appreciating the life experiences of others.

Those qualities were on display at Harvard, they say, where she brought diverse groups of people together and lent her voice to a range of activities, from powerhouse musical performances to protesting injustices.

Her class was about 9% Black, according to The Harvard Crimson. By 2020, the university’s undergraduate population was about 11% Black.

In a 2019 speech titled “Rising Through the Ranks: A Tale of Hard Work, Big Breaks & Tough Skin,” Jackson recounted lessons learned from the Confederate flag incident, which she said took place her freshman year. She called the flag a “huge affront” and the university’s response “unacceptably lax.” But she implored the Black law students she was addressing, at the University of Chicago, to not let slights, doubts or injustices derail them.

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“So what does it take to rise through the ranks despite those who don’t think you have it in you, and will remind you of their feelings at every turn?” she said. “It demands that you tune out those voices, block out their little flags and ignore the haters, rather than indulging them.”

Such thinking helped Jackson get to Harvard in the first place. She excelled at Miami Palmetto Senior High School as a student, a debater, a star performer and the president of her class. But all that was not enough to convince her guidance counselor that she could win admission to the university she fell in love with — she once described it as “majestic”— while attending debate tournaments. She was told, she has said, not to set her sights so high. She did anyway.

When she arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1988, it was not as easy a transition as she had anticipated. In her second week, she sat on the steps of Widener Library, an intimidating, museum-like building that anchors the campus, and wept.

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It was her 18th birthday, and she was wrapped in a scarf with a hat pulled over her head, sobbing through her orientation paperwork, she recalled in a speech to high school students in 2011. When she returned to her room, she checked her messages and heard her mother’s voice singing to her. It was the encouragement she needed, she told the group, and “even in my loneliness, I thanked God for the opportunity he’d given me, for the firm foundation he had provided and also for how far I had come.”

Jackson has described the year she was born, 1970, on the heels of the civil rights era, as a year of hope for Black Americans like her parents.

“I grew up hearing the stories of what life used to be like for young Black people of my parents’ generation, yet my life’s circumstances were so different that it is still hard for me to believe that strict racial segregation was the law of the land just a few years before I arrived,” she said in a 2020 lecture at the University of Michigan Law School.

By her sophomore year, Jackson’s parents’ influence was felt deeply at Harvard, where their words and presence — they were staples on campus, visiting and attending her performances — guided not only their daughter, but also her friends. Jackson would often deliver advice from her parents to her three roommates, all of whom came from single-parent households.

“They were an example for us of what a powerful Black couple could be,” said one of them, Nina Simmons, “and we saw in her the impact of that — the confidence, self-assurance and sass, in these white arenas.”

Jackson went on to attend Harvard Law, where Njeri Mathis Rutledge, a classmate who is now a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, recalled her as “tiny but mighty,” with a bright smile and a big laugh. It was not uncommon for Black students to be labeled reticent; Rutledge remembers raising her hand one day and hearing a classmate refer to her as “a quiet one.”

But Jackson, Rutledge said, “was never the quiet one. She was always saying thoughtful, knowledgeable things.”

Jackson beat out a number of students, including Rutledge, in a competition for a spot on the prestigious Harvard Law Review, and then won election to a top position. She was one of the few members of color.

In addition to lifelong friendships and a legacy, Jackson began building a family at Harvard.

She began dating Patrick Jackson, a pre-med and math student, at Harvard and went on to marry him. He is now a surgeon at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. They have two daughters, who are 17 and 21.

No matter the outcome of this week’s hearings, Jackson has already made history — and had an impact on her alma mater that will be felt for generations.

On a recent day, Coakley walked through Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law, browsing walls lined with pictures of notable faculty members. She paused as she got to the more recent photos, which featured more Black and female professors. In the past, she noted, “you would look on this wall and see nothing that looked like you.”

“K.,” she said of her friend, “helped fight for this.”