By Ben Jealous
The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an intellectual giant with a righteous spirit. She used her brilliant mind and steely determination to protect the gains of the civil rights movement and advance the values of freedom, equality, justice, and opportunity. She inspired generations of activists with the example of her persistence. We who learned from and looked up to Justice Ginsburg now must fight for her legacy.
Ginsburg may be most remembered for her lifelong struggle to overcome and eliminate obstacles to equality and opportunity for women, including the right of women to make the most important decisions about their lives, their bodies, and their families.
The truth is that she was just as steady in her defense of the gains made by other great social justice movements of our time, including the fight to expand access to health care.
In the face of intense Republican efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act—known as Obamacare—Ginsburg defended the ACA and the constitutional powers of the federal government to protect people’s wellbeing. The ACA has been hugely important to Black Americans, whose health outcomes and mortality rates are significantly worse than white Americans. The ACA produced real progress in narrowing health disparities, but President Donald Trump and the right-wing judges he has been putting on the courts—and would like to fill Ginsburg’s seat with—would do away with Obamacare and its expansion of Medicaid. If they kill the ACA, 23 million people will lose health coverage.
Ginsburg served on the Supreme Court at a time when the well-funded right-wing push for ideological domination of the federal courts began to take hold. She often played the role of the Great Dissenter. She denounced right-wing justices’ indifference to the impact of their decisions on working people. She exposed the conservative majority’s bogus justifications for unjust decisions.
Lilly Ledbetter went to court when she discovered the company she worked for had been unfairly paying her less than men for years. She was denied justice when the Supreme Court’s conservatives twisted the federal law that was supposed to protect employees from discrimination on the job. Wage discrimination harms Black women, who are typically paid just 62 percent of what white non-Hispanic men are paid. It takes a typical Black woman 19 months to make what a white man earns in 12 months. Ginsburg’s dissent showed Congress the path to put protections back in place.
And I will never forget Ginsburg’s blazing dissent from the right-wing justices’ 2013 vote to rip the heart out of the Voting Rights Act—gutting one of the greatest accomplishments of the civil rights movement. She documented the ever-changing tactics of voter suppression and intimidation targeting Black voters. And she called out the majority for failing to recognize the “transformative effect” that the Fifteenth Amendment, enacted after the Civil War, aimed to achieve.
She was proved correct when state after state, mostly old Confederate states, imposed new restrictions on voting that fell most heavily on Black citizens, whose disenfranchisement the Voting Rights Act was designed to prevent.
Ginsburg told a reporter that she would like to be remembered as “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”
We will remember her as that, and as much more. We will remember her as a true patriot, committed to the American ideal of equality under law, a principle for which she fought literally until her dying breath.
With her writing and the example of her life, Justice Ginsburg bent the moral arc of the universe in the direction of justice. And when injustice advanced, she planted seeds of democratic renewal that we must now nourish with our own lives and activism.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.