BIRMINGHAM — U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson spoke in Birmingham on Friday to commemorate the anniversary of the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young black girls.

Jackson was nominated to SCOTUS by President Joe Biden in 2022. She is the most recent addition to the nation’s highest court, replacing Stephen Breyer, who resigned from the court that year.

The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church occurred after four Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members planted 19 sticks of dynamite under the steps of the church. The explosion killed four black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, all under the age of 15. It also injured several others.

The bombing received national attention and amplified the push for civil rights legislation on the federal level. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy later that year, President B. Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. 

Viewers filled the church on Friday morning and participated in a service before Jackson’s speech. Those who did not make it inside the church gathered outside at Kelly Ingram Park across the street where the service was being projected. 

Several Birmingham-area Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Birmingham), Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Mountain Brook), welcomed Jackson to the 16th Street Baptist Church.

All three of them spoke of the bombing as a motivation for the civil rights movement, in which Birmingham played a major role. They also insisted that threats to racial equality are still looming, if not becoming more serious.

Sewell’s comments follow Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) decision earlier this year to reject an African American Studies AP Course, citing concerns about the curriculum’s ideological bias. 

Proponents of DeSantis’ move argued the course was rooted in Critical Race Theory (CRT), which has been criticized for its embrace of relativism and accused of attributing all unequal outcomes between racial groups to “institutional racism” and unfairly labeling any criticism of the theory as racist. 

Jones, who successfully prosecuted two of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombers in the early 2000s, introduced Jackson before she started her speech. Jones said the bombings “woke America” up from a “coma-like state that ignored the injustice of Jim Crow for more than 100 years.”

“Now, I know that there are people listening to this … that are going, ‘OMG, he just said that America was woke!” Jones said. “You’re dang right I did, folks! I did because it was a good thing for America. It was a good thing for America that people woke up to those injustices … It’s not a bad thing to wake up!”

He also took a jab at U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) recently announced plans to open an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden over his family’s business dealings. Jones called the effort “faulty impeachments.”

When she finally took the stage, Jackson shared the sentiments of the speakers who preceded her, reiterating the importance of remembering the bombing. 

“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,” she said. “We cannot forget because the uncomfortable lessons are often the ones that teach us the most about ourselves. We cannot forget because we cannot learn from past mistakes we do not know exist.”

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