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Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality

Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality

by Tomiko Brown-Nagin
Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality

Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality

by Tomiko Brown-Nagin


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A TIME BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR • The first major biography of one of our most influential judges—an activist lawyer who became the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary—that provides an eye-opening account of the twin struggles for gender equality and civil rights in the 20th Century. • “Timely and essential."—The Washington Post

“A must-read for anyone who dares to believe that equal justice under the law is possible and is in search of a model for how to make it a reality.” —Anita Hill

With the US Supreme Court confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson, “it makes sense to revisit the life and work of another Black woman who profoundly shaped the law: Constance Baker Motley” (CNN). Born to an aspirational blue-collar family during the Great Depression, Constance Baker Motley was expected to find herself a good career as a hair dresser. Instead, she became the first black woman to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court, the first of ten she would eventually argue. The only black woman member in the legal team at the NAACP's Inc. Fund at the time, she defended Martin Luther King in Birmingham, helped to argue in Brown vs. The Board of Education, and played a critical role in vanquishing Jim Crow laws throughout the South. She was the first black woman elected to the state Senate in New York, the first woman elected Manhattan Borough President, and the first black woman appointed to the federal judiciary.
Civil Rights Queen captures the story of a remarkable American life, a figure who remade law and inspired the imaginations of African Americans across the country. Burnished with an extraordinary wealth of research, award-winning, esteemed Civil Rights and legal historian and dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Tomiko Brown-Nagin brings Motley to life in these pages. Brown-Nagin compels us to ponder some of our most timeless and urgent questions—how do the historically marginalized access the corridors of power? What is the price of the ticket? How does access to power shape individuals committed to social justice? In Civil Rights Queen, she dramatically fills out the picture of some of the most profound judicial and societal change made in twentieth-century America.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525436102
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/07/2023
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 166,458
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

TOMIKO BROWN-NAGIN is Dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, and Professor of History at Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In 2019, she was appointed chair of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of the American Philosophical Society, and of the American Law Institute, and a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. Her previous book, Courage to Dissent won the Bancroft Prize in 2011. She frequently appears as a commentator in media. She lives in Boston with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Sam Terry was killed in cold blood. On February 27, 1949, a Sunday afternoon in rural Manchester, Georgia, about sixty-five miles south of Atlanta, white officers shot Terry—a veteran of World War II, a member of the “Greatest Generation,” and a thirty-seven-year-old Black man—three times in the back, once in the side.
Terry had been arrested for a minor infraction that had nothing whatsoever to do with him. Two officers hauled him from his home and locked him in a jail cell. While he was detained, they unloaded their weapons on him, claiming he had resisted arrest and tried to break away from his cell. Terry died of his wounds two days later. In the aftermath, the local sheriff disclaimed all responsibility. His men had done nothing wrong, he said: “no evidence was found” that Terry had been “mistreated” by the arresting officers—the same men who shot and killed him.
Terry’s widow, Minnie Kate, flatly contradicted the sheriff. Sam had not resisted arrest, his wife asserted; suffering from the mumps, he had been in no condition to attack anyone, much less officers of the law. But Sam had protested—verbally—when the officers had “manhandled” Minnie Kate and briefly placed her under arrest on trumped-up charges. Angered by Sam’s defense of his wife, the offi­cers yelled, “Shut up, you black son-of-a-bitch or we’ll kill you.” Once they arrived at the jail, the officers “shoved” Sam into a cell, “followed him in,” “slammed the door,” and “immediately after” fired several shots at him. Minnie Kate, standing just outside the cell door, witnessed the events unfold; what she had seen and heard was an entirely unjustified shooting—a barbaric murder. What was more, Minnie Kate said, while Sam bled profusely from the gunshot wounds in his intestines, the officers had insisted that she had “better not holler,” or she “would get the same thing.”
News accounts and an attending doctor confirmed critical ele­ments of Minnie Kate Terry’s version of events. The Atlanta Consti­tution established that the doors of the cell had been locked when officers repeatedly shot Sam Terry. And the doctor who treated the veteran after the incident said that he had been shot four times. But Minnie Kate had no recourse in the state of Georgia, which at that time was governed by Herman Talmadge, a vicious racist. So she reached out to the national NAACP and its lawyers. Along with her allies, Minnie Kate “urge[d]” the lawyers to take “action” to “see that this injustice is brought to the limelight” and the “guilty ones are punished.” Murders of Black men “are spreading throughout the Southland.” She was not wrong. A reign of terror that began around 1880 continued through the mid-twentieth century: during this time, white mobs across the South, aided and abetted by law enforcement, murdered hundreds of African Americans, and often targeted Black veterans.
Terry’s death came to the attention of Thurgood Marshall, the chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF, or Inc. Fund), and his legal assistant, Constance Baker Motley, then just three years out of law school. Springing into action, Motley wrote to Tom C. Clark, Attorney General of the United States, and requested a federal investigation. Marshall followed up with a letter to the Department of Justice, seeking the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Nothing happened.
In 1950—more than a year after Minnie Kate Terry had buried her husband—Motley once again followed up with federal officials, to no avail. The Department of Justice closed the case, saying that the evidence was insufficient to support a prosecution. This failure to thoroughly investigate, much less prosecute, fit a pattern. Despite its wartime condemnation of the racism and violence of the Nazi regime, the U.S. government virtually ignored the wave of anti-Black terrorism—the all-too-frequent beatings, shootings, and lynchings of African Americans—that occurred in the postwar South. Veterans, who led a growing resistance to anti-Black oppression, were rou­tinely victimized and in dire need of representation. Constance Baker Motley, then in her twenties, became one of the most prominent and tireless advocates for African Americans during this turbulent era.
By 1950, African Americans from not just the South but across the whole United States counted on Motley to stand up for racial justice and protect the rights of Black citizens. Handling dozens of cases at a time in a dizzying array of subject areas, she deployed her sharp legal skills to combat discrimination in the criminal legal system, in education, in housing, in the workplace, in politics, and in countless other areas. Her advocacy took her to small towns and cities through­out the South, to the urban North, and to the Midwest.
Wherever she appeared, the striking and audacious Motley cap­tivated and stunned onlookers. At that time, few had seen a woman lawyer or even a Black lawyer, much less the extraordinary combi­nation of the two. The novelty of Motley and her courtroom talents made her an icon of equality. “She’s a prime mover in the cause of civil rights across the nation,” wrote one reporter, and “may justly be called ‘The Civil Rights Queen.’” Part heroine and part warrior, the moniker implied, she wielded the law like a sword of justice.
In bestowing the affectionate honorific, observers did not merely acknowledge her work inside the courtroom. The title implied that Motley had transcended her lawyerly role. She often created a “sensa­tion.” When “word got out that not only was there a ‘nigra lawyer’” but “a ‘nigra’ woman lawyer,” she recalled about her first trial in Jackson, Mississippi, it was “like a circus in town.” “They were amazed at the way I spoke.” Incapable of reconciling the lawyer’s role with a Black woman’s status in American society, some whites responded with tremendous hostility. In a federal courtroom during one trial, a white male lawyer, unwilling to call the imposing woman “Mrs. Motley,” instead “pointed his finger” in his opponent’s direction and called her “she.” In a rare show of anger, Motley set him straight: “If you can’t address me as Mrs. Motley, don’t address me at all.” A trans­formational lawyer, a trailblazing woman, and an exceptional Afri­can American, the Civil Rights Queen personified the extraordinary social change that she brought about through law.
Few would have predicted her rise. Motley’s own parents found her ambition to become a lawyer far-fetched. But she defied their expectations—something she did over and over again in her profes­sional life. It was Thurgood Marshall, “Mr. Civil Rights,” who gave the young lawyer her big break. Before meeting him, Motley had faced a string of rejections from Wall Street law firms led by white men. If Motley repelled these powerful white male lawyers, she fascinated Marshall. He offered her a job at LDF on the spot, and she happily accepted.
There, Motley flourished. “Connie just walked in, walked in and took over,” Marshall recalled years later. She handled hundreds of civil rights cases over a twenty-year period that began in 1945 and continued through 1965—efforts that remade American law and society. In 1954, she played an invaluable role in Brown v. Board of Education, a singular case in twentieth-century American constitu­tional law. The unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawed state-mandated racial segregation in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. Motley desegregated flagship public universities in Georgia and Mississippi. She represented the Birmingham Chil­dren’s Marchers, who were mercilessly attacked and thrown out of school for participating in antisegregation protests. She helped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. escape the horrors of a jail cell in rural Geor­gia. Throughout the course of her work for the civil rights movement, Motley compiled an enviable record as a trial and appellate lawyer. One of just a few women lawyers and the first Black woman lawyer known to appear at the Supreme Court, she won nine of the ten cases that she argued before the nation’s highest court. She summed up this work for the movement by saying, “We have wrought a miracle.”
But Motley’s legacy does not only derive from her exceptional career as a civil rights lawyer. After garnering fame as an attorney, she found a different way to fight for social justice, embarking on an entirely new career—in politics. Again, she made history. In 1964, New Yorkers elected Motley to the state senate; she was the first Black woman to serve in that legislative body. In 1965, she made political history once more when New Yorkers elected her to the Manhattan borough presidency; she was the first woman to serve in the post.
Motley then pursued a third act. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, making her the first African American woman to sit on the federal bench. During her more than thirty years on the court, Judge Motley decided numerous landmark cases in fields ranging from criminal law to civil rights and corporate law. The judge’s rulings in civil rights cases defined her judicial career. Over the objections of lawyers who insisted that as a former civil rights lawyer and a Black woman she could not be “fair,” Motley rendered decisions that implemented the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opened the workplace to women law­yers, journalists, professors, and municipal workers. At the dawn of mass incarceration, she issued a historic ruling mandating due process rights and humane treatment for the incarcerated. And in a case involving low-level drug offenders, she struck down sentences mandated by a new regime of tough-on-crime narcotics laws that left millions of Americans behind bars. Motley’s accomplishments, outstanding for any lawyer and unheard of among women attor­neys, make her one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth century—a woman whose work created a “more perfect” union.

Table of Contents

Introduction . . . 3
1. “The Base of This Great Ambition”: Nevis and New Haven . . . 15
2. “I Discovered Myself”: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Dawn of a Political Conscience . . . 28
3. “Like a Fairy Tale”: Black Exceptionalism, Philanthropy, and a Path to Higher Education . . . 39
4. A Fortuitous Meeting with “Mr. Civil Rights”: Thurgood Marshall and an Offer Not to Be Refused . . . 53
5. “They Hovered Over and Cared for Each Other”: The Uncommon Union of Constance Baker and Joel Motley Jr. . . . 56
6. “A Professional Woman”: Breaking Barriers at Work and in the Courtroom . . . 65
7. “We All Felt the Excruciating Pressure”: Making History in Brown v. Board of Education . . . 79
8. “The Fight Has Just Begun”: The Decade-Long Slog to Desegregate the University of Florida College of Law . . . 91
9. “We Made a Mistake”: “Poor Character,” “Loose Morals,” and Untold Sacrifices in Pursuit of Higher Education at the University of Alabama . . . 98
10. The “Best Plaintiffs Ever”: Desegregating the University of Georgia . . . 113
11. A “Difficulty with the Idea of a Woman”: The Setback of 1961 . . . 126
12. “That’s Your Case”: James Meredith and the Battle to Desegregate the University of Mississippi . . . 141
13. “I Am Human After All”: Trauma and Hardship in the Long Battle at Ole Miss . . . 158
14. An “Eye-Opening Experience”: The Birmingham Civil Rights Campaign . . . 177
15. “An Ideal Candidate”: The Making of a Political Progressive . . . 201
16. “Crisis of Leadership”: A Clash Between Radical and Reform Politics . . . 217
17. “Not a Feminist”: The Manhattan Borough Presidency . . . 228
18. “First”: The Judicial Confirmation . . . 247
19. “A Tough Old Bird”: Judge Motley’s Court . . . 264
20. “The Weeping and the Wailing”: The Black Panther Party, the FBI, and the Huggins Family . . . 272
21. “Pawns in a Very Dangerous Game”: Crime, Punishment, and Prisoners’ Rights . . . 283
22. A “Woman Lawyer” and a “Woman Judge”: Making Opportunity for Women in Law . . . 302
23. “For a Girl, You Know a Lot About Sports”: The New York Yankees Strike Out in Judge Motley’s Courtroom . . . 316
24. No “Protecting Angel”: Blacks, Latinos, and Ordinary People in Judge Motley’s Courtroom . . . 327
Epilogue: Legacies . . . 345

Acknowledgments . . .363
Notes . . . 367
Sources . . . 445
Index . . . 469

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