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Details | State of Illinois Office of the Illinois Courts

Celebrating Black History Month with Justice Cunningham


This February, Illinois Courts is recognizing diverse voices in the judiciary to uplift and inspire others in the community. The following features Illinois Supreme Court Justice Joy V. Cunningham and her thoughts on Black History Month, diversity, and more. 

1. When did you know you wanted to pursue law, and eventually, become a judge?

I had another successful career as a registered nurse before becoming a lawyer. My legal career was more of an evolution instead of something that just happened one day or was planned early. By the time I went to law school, my decision was well thought out and I had clarity and certainty about the career path that I was about to embark upon.

2. For the first time in the state’s history, three African American justices currently sit on the Illinois Supreme Court. What does it mean for you to sit on this bench?

It is an honor and a privilege to sit with two brilliant, hard-working colleagues. I feel as though I am fulfilling the destiny of many Black lawyers before me who were never afforded the opportunity to use their full potential on behalf of the people of our state. The fact that the presence of three black jurists continues to be noteworthy underscores that there is still much more work to be done. It is a responsibility that motivates me to do my very best. I realize and I am grateful to stand on the shoulders of so many others who went before me.

3. What do you think about when you hear “Black History Month?”

Black History Month evokes a certain degree of pride. Black people have been integral to the building of the American nation as we know it today. It took centuries of hard work and legislation for the term Black History Month to make its way into the American vernacular. With its presence, our contributions can no longer be denied. So, I think of Black History Month with pride of Black people having played a role in building this great nation which we know as the United States of America. Black History Month helps us, as a people, to claim our rightful place in the history of our country.

4.Throughout your life, what role models have you looked up to?

My role models have been many and have been varied, depending on where I was in my life. However, one role model that I have always looked up to is my Great Aunt Lily, who was "a woman ahead of her time." I also look up to the late Judge George Leighton, the late Justice Eugene Pincham, and the late Justice Glenn T. Johnson. These men influenced my life in one way or another. My Great Aunt Lily was the ultimate role model for all the women in our family. She exemplified the values that she imparted to my siblings and me. She taught me the importance of education, integrity, and hard work. Those are the values that have propelled me through my career and ultimately to the Illinois Supreme Court.

5. Why do you think it’s important to recognize Black History, not just this month, but every day?

The importance of Black people in the building of the United States cannot be overstated, nor denied. However, historically, that is exactly what happened. Establishment of Black History Month ensures that generations of future Americans will understand the significant role which black Americans played in making our country the great democracy that it is.

6. Is there anything else you’d like to add on this topic?

Black History Month presents an opportunity for all Americans to celebrate the diversity of our country. It also gives us the opportunity to learn our country’s history, without significant omissions, as was once the case. United States is a wonderful country because of its diversity. At this time of year, Black History Month reminds us of that.