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Opinion | Cory Booker, ‘You Had Our Back’

Less than an hour after the Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, Sherrilyn Ifill, a former president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, walked into Senator Cory Booker’s Capitol Hill office.

The two locked in a prolonged embrace, his husky frame draped over her smaller one, and she told him, “You had our back. You had our back. You had our back. You had our back,” repeating the phrase like an incantation as Booker wept onto her shoulder.

That “our” contains multitudes. It invokes all those who have left this world, or remain in it, who live or lived with the gnawing truth that “I’ve always had the talent, but I never had a chance.” That “our” is Black people. “Our” is Black women.

Judge Jackson’s achievement is her own, earned and deserved, but she rose on and was covered in the prayer power of millions of Black women. And while only Black women could fully access the ebullience in the air Thursday, the joy and relief at finally being seen, there were also those in Washington who did what they could to offer comfort and support, particularly people in power, people like Booker, the only Black senator to ever sit on the Judiciary Committee when a Black Supreme Court nominee appeared for his or her confirmation hearing.

Jackson had many allies among the Democrats on the committee, but none of them distinguished themselves more as a salve and sanctuary for the embattled Jackson than Booker, the face that looked most like her own.

During the hearing, Booker delivered an impassioned speech in which he avowed: “You have earned this spot. You are worthy. You are a great American.” Jackson pushed up her glasses and wiped away tears. Booker’s affirmation had touched the tender spot.

I traveled to Washington on Thursday to see Booker and watch as history was made. Before the vote, we sat in his office, which is dominated by a nearly two-story wooden bookcase with a sliding ladder and brass hardware.

He contrasted Jackson’s treatment during the hearing to Amy Coney Barrett’s, calling Barrett’s hearing “very respectful” and saying, “We all conducted ourselves in a way that I thought brought dignity to the process.” Jackson’s treatment, he said, “was not that.” As he put it, “There was a level of disrespect and disregard that I had not seen before with other Supreme Court justices.”

He saw Thursday as “a day of healing,” a reaffirming of Black people’s faith in this country. “There’s a lot of us who want to believe in the promise of America,” he told me. “You get weary holding on to that dream. And you really want to hold on to any indication that your faith and your love for this nation is justified.”

After our conversation, I took the Senate subway with him and his staff members, almost all women of color, from his office building to the Capitol. From my seat in the gallery overlooking the Senate floor, I could watch the senators’ faces as they voted, saying “yea” or “no” whenever their names were called. When Booker’s name came up, he stood and shouted “YES,” to giggles from the gallery. Senator Ted Cruz seemed to grimace when Mitt Romney, who sat beside him, voted to affirm — one of only three Republicans to do so.

Tim Scott chatted with a neighbor incessantly until his name was called. He insouciantly voted “no,” the only Black senator to do so, before leaving the room. Senator Lindsey Graham stuck a thumbs-down through the door to the cloakroom.

Soon, voting was halted. Rand Paul wasn’t in the chamber and hadn’t voted. While the senators began to mill around, Booker worked the room, hugging, shaking hands, patting shoulders and chatting. At one point, he approached Vice President Kamala Harris on the dais, and Raphael Warnock joined them, patting Booker on the shoulder. I could see Harris give each of the men a sheet of paper.

A Black woman sat down next to me and said of Paul’s absence and the resulting delay: “This is passive-aggressive. He’s here.” Disrespectful, I thought. Soon he, too, reached a thumbs-down through the cloakroom door. I could see that he wasn’t even wearing a suit jacket.

And then it was finished. History had been made. There, in a room encircled by the busts of the first vice presidents — white men, some enslavers — carved from white marble, Jackson’s confirmation was announced by the first vice president who is neither white nor male.

The chamber erupted in a standing ovation, an instantaneous response to a promise being kept, to a faith being kept.

Booker lingered in the chamber, long after most other senators had gone. He returned to his seat, slapped his heart with his right hand, wiped more tears from his eyes (you can tell by now how often he cries) and dropped his head. He told me later that he was praying, gathering himself before facing the press.

In Booker’s office after the vote, I asked him about the paper that Harris had handed him and Warnock. He replied that she had encouraged them to write a letter to somebody. “I think she just saw us sort of nodding, and she goes, ‘No, no, no,’” and she opened up her book and passed them each a piece of her letterhead, the only two she had on her, Booker said.

Harris wanted these two Black men, who had just voted to confirm the first Black female Supreme Court justice, to write a letter of encouragement on the stationery of the first Black woman to hold the office of vice president.

I asked Booker if he knows whom he’ll send his letter to. He said he had already “thought of a lot of little girls in my life” but he was still deciding.

So many Black girls needed this moment, needed this win, and so many of them could benefit from receiving a letter, from Booker, telling them what he’d told Jackson: You will make your moments on your own merits, but the support and encouragement you receive will flow from your folks. We will have your back.

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