To honor Justice Ginsburg's legacy, Biden should consider Michelle Obama

To honor Justice Ginsburg's legacy, Biden should consider Michelle Obama
© Getty Images

This weekend, the nation will honor the legacy of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgAnti-abortion movement eyes its holy grail Abortion rights face most difficult test yet at Supreme Court Mississippi's attorney general asks Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade MORE, who died at age 87; soon thereafter, former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign must seize the moment and stake out a landmark candidate to replace the beloved jurist. The nominee must be someone who advances the cause of racial and gender justice and quells Republican efforts to bum-rush a replacement.

What it means is that the Biden campaign cannot simply propose to nominate a woman of traditional qualifications for the court. If it is to make history, then it must spotlight a woman who embodies the dream of the civil rights movement. That person is former first lady Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama.

As the nation grapples with protests for racial justice, Obama is best positioned to symbolize the Afro-American promise. Her roots in the authentic experience of the Black urban migration connects her story to the story of pioneer civil rights figures such as Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune rose from humble origins on a cotton plantation in South Carolina to found the Bethune-Cookman Institute in Daytona Beach, Fla., and to become an adviser to former President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.


In Obama, concerned Americans would be comforted by her well-known intellectual acumen and dedication to the goals of equal justice with fairness. She is singularly qualified to occupy the seat that inherits the ideals of Ginsburg.

As the only African American first lady, Obama fostered one of the most welcoming and inclusive White House cultures in history and spoke out frequently on behalf of the rights of women and girls. She initiated the “Let’s Move” program to combat childhood obesity, “Joining Forces” to rally support for military families, and “Reach Higher,” an initiative to encourage young people to pursue vocational and college educations.

Moreover, she brings insight as a Black woman of dark complexion who struggled to be confident in a society that values whiteness and lightness. Like the abolitionist Sojourner Truth, she learned to “sell the shadow to support the substance” of life as a Black mother and professional woman. And like the abolitionist leader, she learned to temper her emotions in order to grow as a national voice for racial and gender equality.

No one would ever mistake Obama as a concession to the inclusive sensibilities of white liberals. Most Black observers recognize that she represents the moderate middle class of Chicago with its sense of pride. It is a community that historically has stood for the values of education, industry, self-reliance, mutual cooperation and small-business enterprise. Until the recent rise of a capable political class in Georgia, Chicago was the most accomplished Black community in the country.

Her story is well known because of her popular autobiography, “Becoming.” She grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her father was a hardworking pump operator for the Water Department, despite struggles with the crippling disease of multiple sclerosis. Her mother stayed at home to raise Obama and her older brother, Craig.


She graduated from public schools and studied sociology and African American studies at Princeton University. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1988, she joined the Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin, where she later met Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama setting up big bash to celebrate his 60th A path to climate, economic and environmental justice is finally on the horizon Emergency infrastructure needed to keep Americans safe: Public media MORE. She went on to work as assistant commissioner of planning and development in City Hall and as executive director of the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program that prepares youth for public service.

In 1996, she joined the University of Chicago as associate dean of student services, and then as the vice president of community and external affairs for the UC Medical Center, all while balancing the demands of work and motherhood. In short, she is the real deal.

The Biden campaign must appreciate that proposing Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaObama setting up big bash to celebrate his 60th Poll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Jill Biden takes starring role at difficult Olympics MORE for the Supreme Court would ignite enthusiasm in the Black community and among suburban women. Moreover, it would put pressure on vulnerable Republican senators who might be solicited to support yet another problematic Trump nominee to the Supreme Court. That group would include the incumbent Republican Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSchumer urges GOP to ignore Trump: He's 'rooting for failure' Trump pressures McConnell, GOP to ditch bipartisan talks until they have majority Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (R-Maine), Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallySchumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (R-Ariz.), Cory GardnerCory GardnerEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms MORE (R-Colo.), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R-N.C.), Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerSchumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up Trump says Herschel Walker will enter Georgia Senate race WNBA announces zero COVID-19 positive tests, 99 percent fully vaccinated MORE (R-Ga.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGrassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa Republicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund MORE (R-Iowa) and Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesSenate committee advances bipartisan energy infrastructure bill  Hillicon Valley: Lina Khan faces major FTC test | Amazon calls for her recusal | Warren taps commodities watchdog to probe Google Senators propose bill to help private sector defend against hackers MORE (R-Mont.). Each of them would have to think twice before inciting the wrath of Black and suburban women voters in their states.  

The Biden campaign would be foolish in the extreme to allow this historic moment to pass. One could argue that all the campaign needs to do at this time is float her name as a leading candidate on a list of candidates under consideration. She need not even comment on the proposal other than to say that she is flattered to be in the mix. That precedent would add star power to the Biden campaign and lay the groundwork for a landmark nomination.

Shirley Chisholm was a pioneering New York congresswoman and candidate for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. An observation she made in her 1970 autobiography, “Unbought and Unbossed,” may be relevant to the promise of Michelle Obama on the Supreme Court: “It is not female egotism to say that the future of mankind may very well be ours to determine. It is a fact.”

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. Since 2014, he has published, a multimedia library resource on African American history and culture. He has produced radio programs on African American history for NPR and is the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”