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As President Joe Biden reaffirms his commitment to nominate the first Black woman to the US Supreme Court, it makes sense to revisit the life and work of another Black woman who profoundly shaped the law: Constance Baker Motley.
Motley was a “desegregation architect” who over the course of decades inspired numerous women lawyers and judges — including some on the short list of potential nominees. Yet she’s often missing from the pantheon of great Americans. Many are familiar with Thurgood Marshall, but few outside judiciary circles talk about Motley’s vital role in dismantling racial segregation and gender discrimination.
As a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., Motley wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case in which the Court unanimously held that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protections Clause.
Further, Motley handled a number of cases that enforced the Brown decision at elementary and secondary schools across the South. She also litigated cases that broke down racial barriers at institutions of higher education in the region, including at the University of Mississippi, where James Meredith famously gained admission in 1962.
Later, during her time in political office and on the federal bench beginning in the mid-’60s, Motley continued to champion the rights of the most marginalized Americans, and became a beloved figure in the early prisoners’ rights movement.
In her magnificent new volume, “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, offers a gripping chronicle of Motley’s life and career, and in the process gives the trailblazer’s leviathan achievements the attention they deserve.
“The invisibility of this fascinating woman in our public histories and popular culture distorts our sense of who rebuilt America,” Brown-Nagin writes. “Motley’s invisibility in our nation’s history shortchanges us all. But her absence is especially detrimental to the sense of belonging of the many communities she visibly represented — African Americans, West Indians, women, girls, immigrants and the working class.”
I recently spoke with Brown-Nagin about her book, released this week, and about the enduring relevance of Motley’s battles for racial equality.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Your book’s title, “Civil Rights Queen,” is fitting. But why isn’t Constance Baker Motley as well known today as her mentor Thurgood Marshall? In particular, what does the absence of her name from the list of civil rights heroes tell us about our understanding of the movement — and Black women’s role in it?
The first reason is that, in Western societies, historical significance is coded male, so the lives of men are deemed worthy of study and remembrance. In this context, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall have become well-known figures in American history, studied by students from elementary through high school. And I want to say that this is as it should be.
Nevertheless, there should be room for a figure such as Constance Baker Motley, who was a remarkable woman and a giant in the law. Called the Civil Rights Queen in her time, she was a counterpart of Marshall, who was called Mr. Civil Rights and was her mentor. He called Motley his equal and said that she just walked into the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and “took over.”
A second reason that she is probably lesser known is because she was not promoted to director-counsel of the NAACP LDF. When Marshall stepped down, the position went to a respected lawyer, Jack Greenberg. And the point is that history seldom remembers the No. 2, and she was in the No. 2 position. I do think that it deprived her of some fame that she otherwise would’ve had.
Then there’s a third reason. In her third phase (of her career), Motley was appointed to the court (the US District Court for the Southern District of New York). It was a tremendous honor, but at the same time, judges are cloistered. There are few judges, other than the justices of the US Supreme Court, who are well known in society broadly.
Could you walk me through Motley’s role in litigating cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, and tell me why these cases matter in the context of today?
Perhaps the place to start is with Brown v. Board of Education, one of the most significant cases in constitutional law of the 20th century. This is the case in which the Court unanimously held that state-mandated segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Motley was a part of the legal team that helped change our nation in that context of education, and she was the only woman on the legal team.
Motley also litigated school desegregation cases in Atlanta and Mobile and throughout the South, and she helped desegregate higher education at flagship universities in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. It was because of Motley’s work that Black students entered those universities in large numbers.
She also, as a judge, decided some significant cases. I would point to her role in implementing Title VII, the employment antidiscrimination law that was a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She played a big role in a settlement in a case brought by female law school graduates arguing that one of the most prestigious law firms denied opportunities to women. Motley was asked by the attorney for the law firm in that case to recuse herself because he said that, as a Black woman, she herself had probably experienced workplace discrimination and therefore, he concluded, couldn’t be fair.
Motley rejected that invitation, and turned the argument on its head, enunciating a principle that is of enduring significance. And that is that everyone has a race and a gender. It’s not just African American women or people of color. White men have a race and a gender. They have experiences — everyone has experiences. And if no one with experience of any kind or an identity can rule in a case, then we’re in a very bad place. And that principle, the Blank principle, has been applied in the context of lawyers making recusal motions based on a judge’s race or sex or LGBTQ status.
What were some of the challenges Motley faced early on in her career? And what were some of the dangers she faced as a civil rights lawyer, and often as the only Black woman in the courtroom?
There were low expectations for an African American girl from a working-class immigrant background in New Haven, Connecticut, when Motley arrived at Columbia Law School, where she was never meant to be. There were very few African Americans and very few women there. She wrote that she survived law school. And so that is to say that it was a challenging experience for her. She wrote about how if anyone had taken a bet, no one would’ve bet on her. And yet she went on to have this glorious career in the law.
But as she litigated, she faced some of the same indignities as her clients. For example, she was not allowed to stay in White-owned hotels or eat at White-owned restaurants. So she lost weight when she went down South because there wasn’t adequate food. She didn’t have the convenience of just popping into a restaurant when she needed to. The lawyers had to rely on the kindness of friends or African Americans in the community who may have had boarding houses, and that was not always sure to materialize because those Blacks who helped NAACP LDF lawyers were themselves subject to retaliation.
Then there was the issue of sometimes facing disrespect from White lawyers and even judges in those courtrooms where she was typically the only woman. Few people had seen a Black lawyer, much less the combination of a Black and a woman lawyer. So she really stood out in ways that threatened norms, and sometimes the lawyers on the other side were disrespectful.
When Motley was in Mississippi, a lawyer who defended the University of Mississippi refused to shake her hand. When she was working on one of the cases defending the Birmingham civil rights movement, she appeared in the courtroom, and the judge said, Well, you’re a woman. In other words, Why are you here? And how can it be that of the lawyers who are sitting at the council’s table, you are the one who’s actually representing the movement?
Motley, who had been taught by Thurgood Marshall to not react to such swipes and in some instances to laugh them off, deflected and said, Well, actually, I’m the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer who was assigned to this case. I have experience with these kinds of cases, and that is why I am the one who’s standing before you and going to press the case.
What motivated Motley to consistently put her life on the line to litigate cases that sought to dismantle racial segregation?
Motley grew up in New Haven in the shadow of Yale University. All of her male relatives worked at Yale, and her parents were West Indian immigrants. In the context of that household and in New Haven — there were progressive elements in the ’30s — when she came of age, she developed an interest in social justice and went to law school, though people thought that she, as a Black girl, was crazy for having that aspiration. She was told that she should be a hairdresser. But she defied that, because she had a sense of mission. She was highly intelligent. She could see the discrimination around her and wanted to be helpful in the struggle.
Motley was quite courageous. She litigated a number of cases in the South under threat of death. Certainly, that was true in the Ole Miss case. In that process, two people were killed. But she did that work because she believed in the principle. And of course, she was working with a band of lawyers who, together, were a community dedicated to social justice.