Justice Kyra H. Bolden, the first Black woman to sit on the Michigan Supreme Court, spoke at James Madison College's second annual Black History Month Symposium on Wednesday, Feb. 7th.
Before her appointment to the Supreme Court, Bolden graduated from Grand Valley State University and later represented Michigan's 35th District. She advocated for criminal justice reform and protection for survivors of sexual assault, as she said she's "always had a fire under her belt for justice."
"My favorite phrase to say to my mom growing up was, 'That's not fair,'" Bolden said.
Bolden said that less than a century ago, her great-grandfather was lynched after asking a storeowner for a receipt, but his death was ruled as an "accidental drowning." She said that this injustice has fueled her throughout her career.
A couple of years into her time in the legislature, a Michigan Congresswoman invited Bolden to her house and asked her an unexpected question: "Have you ever considered running for Michigan's Supreme Court?"
Bolden told her, "Maybe in 20 years," as she didn't feel 2022 was the right time. She was 34 years old, still adjusting to her representative job and hoped to have a child.
"In 2019, as I was entering the legislature, I actually had a miscarriage, so that was very difficult to start a new job with a miscarriage," Bolden said. "I also suffer from uterine fibroids, which I know a lot of women do. But I wasn't sure of my reproductive viability. I definitely didn't want to run a state-wide race pregnant."
When she did become pregnant, Bolden often corrected people's assumptions that she was running for Michigan's Supreme Court. Several people who'd learned of her pregnancy still wanted her to run for the position, which led her to seriously consider serving a bigger community, she said.
"Internally, I thought, 'What message would I be sending to my daughter if I didn't run?'" Bolden said. "How could I let my daughter grow up in a world where there hasn't been representation on the Michigan Supreme Court? How could I tell her she could be anything she wanted to be if her mom was too afraid to run?" she said.
Bolden began her campaign for the court while pregnant and representing the 35th District of Michigan.
"No, I did not miss one day in the Legislature," she said. "It was really not fun being there at four o'clock in the morning, seven months pregnant, but whatever – work must be done."
Bolden ran against the two incumbents and several other candidates.
"I knew there was a high likelihood that I wouldn't win; it is really hard to unseat somebody," she said. "I ran for representation, to show that it's possible, because quite frankly, I didn't know if there would be another Black woman running."
Bolden lost in third place with 21.9% of votes. However, seeing that 1,369,291 voters had believed in her instantly uplifted Bolden, she said, even if she hadn't won, she said.
Then, Justice Bridget McCormack unexpectedly left the Michigan Supreme Court. Governor Gretchen Whitmer appointed Bolden to succeed McCormack and fill the vacancy in November 2022.
"Because I was appointed, some people think the governor called me and was like, 'Hey, Kyra, you're up!'" she said. "No, that's not how that works."
"You can say what you want about me, but I will not be outworked," she said.
Bolden emphasizes that if she hadn't run the race, she never would've been appointed.
"Sometimes your failures can be a stepping stone to success," she said. "If a door closed, that was not for you. That position was for me, because regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the fact that I lost, I was still in the position to be appointed."
"Especially for people that are young, you're going to think, 'That job was the job,'" she said. "Don't think because a door is closed, that that's deterring you. It may be leading you to exactly where you need to go."
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Bolden said serving on the Michigan Supreme Court for the past year has been the honor of her life. Since January 2023, she has authored three majority opinions, one being unanimous.
"It will be difficult, but don't let anyone outwork you," she said.
After her talk, Bolden advised MSU students, "You can't let other people's limitations of themselves impress upon you."
"I hope people feel inspired by my story," she told The State News. "I get inspired that people enjoy hearing me speak."
Brian Johnson, Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for James Madison College, helped organize the symposium. He said he was inspired to invite Justice Bolden when touring with students through Lansing's Michigan Hall of Justice last summer.
"The Hall had pictures of the Justices, including one of Bolden, and the students just lit up seeing her picture," he said.
Johnson said Bolden was "more than accommodating." He believes the symposium went well, representing not just MSU students but high schoolers and faculty members from multiple departments.
James Madison College student and social relations policy sophomore Mary Stein attended the symposium, where she realized that Bolden and her "are very similar." Stein also hopes to attend law school and work in public policy, which she said not many women go into.
"Obviously, it's not an easy journey, but she was able to make it, which is inspiring," Stein said. "She was saying it can be a big burden to try and inspire people, but I think she did a great job of that."
Political science sophomore Jaelynn Smith said she was drawn to this symposium because, being a minority student at a PWI school like MSU, she wants to engage with "fun and interactive" events for Black History Month. Smith called Bolden's words "inspiring" and "encouraging."
"Her speech felt open and honest, off-the-script, which I hadn't expected," Smith said. "What she told us is not something you can just find on a website. Like they had said in the introduction, we're probably never going to hear this speech again," she said.
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