In his speech “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Seldom has this principle felt more evident than watching Justice Lisa Holder White take the oath of office—in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum—to become the Illinois Supreme Court’s newest member.
When President Lincoln took office, he could not have envisioned the historic scene that would take place more than 150 years later in a museum bearing his name. In 1861, the American legal system sanctioned the enslavement of Black Americans, the judiciary and legal profession were closed to women and people of color, and a fractured nation was on the precipice of a bitter war. The extent to which a more perfect union could be formed was yet to be determined.
Yet, on July 7, 2022, I sat in the museum’s Union Theater to witness progress made manifest: for the first time in Illinois history, a Black woman would serve on the highest court in the Land of Lincoln. She would serve in the seat previously held by Justice Rita B. Garman—the longest-serving female judge in Illinois. She would be sworn in by a woman—Justice Mary Jane Theis. She would serve on a Court led by a woman—Chief Justice Anne M. Burke. The arc of the moral universe was bending toward justice.
But the trajectory toward justice is neither inevitable nor self-fulfilling. To assume otherwise would deny the hard-won places in history of those who refused to yield to an unjust status quo and therefore bent our state and country toward its highest ideals. And it would obviate our responsibility to actively further the cause of justice in the arenas over which we have been entrusted influence.
As the newly appointed Executive Director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, I embrace both the mandate and opportunity to help further justice in Illinois’ legal profession and systems. In establishing the Commission, the Court charged the organization with: (i) promoting “integrity, professionalism and civility” among Illinois lawyers and judges; (ii) fostering a “commitment to the elimination of bias and divisiveness within the legal and judicial systems;” and (iii) ensuring such systems “provide equitable, effective and efficient resolution of problems and disputes for the people of Illinois.” (Ill. S. Ct. R. 799(a).)
The Commission effectuates this mission not through punitive measures but rather through aspirational initiatives centered on civility, ethics, well-being, inclusion, and equity. Guided by those principles, the Commission develops and delivers engaging educational courses, conferences, and resources; facilitates innovative lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring and courthouse professionalism programs; cultivates thought leadership through social media, blogs, and media interviews; and collaborates with the judiciary, law schools, bar associations, and other legal organizations. Our goal is to elevate professionalism as the northern star of Illinois’ legal and judicial systems, further bending them toward justice.
Last year, the Commission partnered with the Illinois Judges Association on an educational series to explore ways of enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the state’s legal system. Titled “Building Confidence in our Legal System,” this series was comprised of three sessions, each led by a working group of judges, attorneys, and other court, legal, and community stakeholders.
I was part of the “Leadership of Stakeholders” working group. Fittingly, it was led by then Fourth District Appellate Court Justice Holder White. It was a privilege to watch this brilliant and compassionate woman lead and forge consensus. Grounded in her abiding respect for the rule of law and commitment to justice for all, Justice Holder White encouraged us to think rigorously and constructively about root problems and potential solutions. And she underscored each of our obligations to lead in whatever role we played in the legal system. That Justice Holder White’s leadership role in Illinois’ legal system would be elevated just a year later makes the time spent in the working group even more meaningful.
In her installation remarks, Justice Holder White spoke powerfully of her ancestors, emphasizing that her heritage “once involved minds and bodies that were shackled and doors that were so long closed.” She then spoke of visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum the week before her installation ceremony and seeing one of the 12 existing copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Lincoln. Justice Holder White said taking her oath in the museum dedicated to the president “who freed the slaves—[her] ancestors”—is “proof positive of the progress of this great nation and our great state.”
As Justice Holder White spoke of her ancestors, I thought of my great-great grandfather, Rev. Dred D. Davis, who was born into slavery in 1842. He was emancipated by the same proclamation that unshackled Justice Holder White’s ancestors. I also thought back to nearly 20 years ago when I had the honor of singing the National Anthem at the dedication of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. I did so as Miss America, representing the Land of Lincoln.
That I, the great-great-granddaughter of a man born into slavery, would have such opportunities was proof positive of the progress of which Justice Holder White so poignantly spoke. It is the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. And it is a charge to use every opportunity going forward, especially my role as Executive Director of the Supreme Court’s Commission on Professionalism, to continue bending that arc toward greater justice for all Illinoisans.
This article originally appeared in Illinois Courts Connect, the monthly newsletter of the Illinois Judicial Branch. To view the article, click here.
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