The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black lawyer who dismantled barriers, for herself and many others

The first Black woman appointed to a federal judgeship, Constance Baker Motley, in her chambers in New York in 2004, at age 82. (BEBETO MATTHEWS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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From 1946 to the 1960s, Constance Baker Motley was the sole woman on the small team of lawyers waging an insurgent challenge to the South’s racial caste system and laying the foundation for the civil rights revolution that transformed American life. The first Black woman appointed to a federal judgeship, in 1966, Motley’s rulings advanced the rights of women, gays and lesbians, prisoners, and the homeless. In “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” Tomiko Brown-Nagin recovers the story of this pioneering lawyer and jurist and invites a fresh consideration of the civil rights movement and the nature of its achievements.

Brown-Nagin, a legal historian and dean of Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute, captures the arc of a life spanning the Depression era to the dawn of the 21st century. The interplay of forces that set young Constance Baker on her unlikely course are key to the story. Born to working-class immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis, Baker grew up in a close-knit community in New Haven, Conn., and excelled as a student. Her family’s economic struggles and the rampant poverty and suffering of the Depression years drew her to community activism and into a circle of young radicals and New Deal activists. College was beyond her family’s financial reach, but good fortune intervened. A local philanthropist, moved by a bold speech Baker delivered at a community center event, offered to pay for her college education and beyond.

Baker’s first encounter with the raw indignities of segregation was on a train ride to Nashville in the fall of 1941 to attend Fisk University, a historically Black college. She thrived at this oasis of Black achievement and cultural life, but the cloistered atmosphere and student apathy about pressing social issues did not suit her. After a year, she departed for New York University and then moved uptown to Harlem to attend law school at Columbia University.

Among the few Black women who had cracked the barriers to study at one of the nation’s elite law schools, Baker attempted to find legal work in New York but met impenetrable resistance. Upon arriving to interview for an internship at a Wall Street firm, “the partner looked at her as if he ‘had seen an unidentified flying object,’” Brown-Nagin writes. After other rejections followed, Baker found her way to the operation run by Thurgood Marshall in two cramped offices overlooking New York’s Bryant Park. As Brown-Nagin describes it, “Marshall wasted no time in offering the beautiful and brainy Baker the internship she sought.” After graduation, Baker continued in a full-time position with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Soon afterward, she married Joel Motley Jr., beginning their lifelong partnership.

After World War II, the NAACP resumed a concentrated legal campaign of targeting educational inequities, part of a broader strategy to topple the South’s system of segregation. Motley tried her first case in Jackson, Miss., in 1949, challenging discriminatory pay for Black teachers. She was the first woman to try a case in a Mississippi courtroom, and she and co-counsel Robert Carter were the first Black lawyers to appear in court since Reconstruction. Black people jammed into the federal courthouse to watch the two brilliant and confident Black attorneys commanding answers and grudging respect from White officials. While the judge ruled against them, the experience elevated the hopes of Black Mississippians that change was possible.

Motley wrote the complaint for Brown v. Board of Education. The historic 1954 Supreme Court decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional marked the beginning of an intense battle. Brown-Nagin vividly captures how the seasoned legal team pushed to enforce the ruling in the face of mobs, defiant White officials and a distant federal government. Mob rule ultimately foiled Motley’s efforts to sustain the court-ordered admission of Autherine Lucy to the University of Alabama in 1956. Lucy was accepted and registered for classes, but was expelled a few days later. In 1961, in a breakthrough case, Motley headed the team that desegregated the University of Georgia with the admission of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, a feat that “cemented her standing,” Brown-Nagin observes. The agonizing circumstances surrounding James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962, and Motley’s deep personal investment in his success, are powerfully recounted here.

By the early 1960s, the strategy of direct action involving boycotts, sit-ins and marches; the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and the launching of voting rights campaigns broadened the base and accelerated the pace of the civil rights movement. Brown-Nagin pays scant attention to this rapidly shifting landscape, sticking closely to Motley’s activities, notably her close relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. Motley played a largely overlooked role in the 1963 Birmingham campaign; most significant was her representation of the more than 1,000 students expelled from school for their participation in the protests. Motley secured an after-hours appeal before Judge Elbert Tuttle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, who struck down a lower court’s ruling that upheld the expulsions — a ruling that would have had devastating consequences for the students, their families and the local movement. Motley remembered her advocacy for these children as her greatest “professional satisfaction.”

In the mid-1960s, as historic civil rights legislation codified legal victories, desperate urban conditions exposed the limited reach of legal remedies, igniting rebellions that escalated through the end of the decade. Motley’s professional career entered a new phase. In 1964, she ran successfully for a seat in the New York state Senate, becoming the first Black woman to serve in that body. A year later she was the New York City Council’s unanimous choice to serve as interim Manhattan borough president, the first woman to hold that position. In November 1965, she ran unopposed for a four-year term. As Brown-Nagin tellingly explains, Motley believed that the mid-1960s “had ushered in a time of rebirth and reward for elite Blacks.” In Motley’s words, “For educated Blacks, our time had come.”

In 1966, Lyndon Johnson appointed Motley to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York — a historic appointment of the first Black woman to a federal judgeship. Motley was 45 years old and would serve until her death in 2005. Expectations for her were high, and, as Brown-Nagin reveals, assumptions about how her race, gender and past work as a civil rights lawyer would bias her rulings were rampant. Motley’s very presence on the bench inspired women and African Americans, and she became a generous mentor to a rising generation of female jurists.

Judge Motley interpreted and applied the changes in law that she had done much to secure. Brown-Nagin’s rich narrative highlights the major cases and rulings that marked these years and define her legacy, such as Blank v. Sullivan & Cromwell, a watershed case that opened opportunities to women in elite law firms. Among the most fascinating and controversial was Motley’s ruling in the case of Martin Sostre, which broke ground in the protection of prison inmates’ civil and religious rights. Brown-Nagin describes it as “the most audacious ruling of [her] entire judicial career.”

“Civil Rights Queen” considers Motley’s work and achievements within the world where she moved. There are brief references to more radical critiques of and approaches to the consequences of America’s tortured racial history, including a fascinating moment in 1961 when Motley engaged in a televised debate with Malcolm X on the question of “Where Is the Negro Headed?” Brown-Nagin underscores Motley’s singular focus on the law-based approach to racial change and civil rights advancement; it provided tangible results. By the late 1960s, however, Martin Luther King Jr. was among many who despaired over the poverty, deprivation and blighted hopes of Black urban communities, untouched by civil rights gains.

At a time when rights are being rolled back and history itself is under assault, this exemplary biography is timely and essential. As a Black woman, Motley was out front in dismantling gender and racial barriers; as a lawyer and jurist, she was a leader in the civil rights revolution that reached into many sectors of American life. The unfinished and perilous work to realize an inclusive and robust democracy reminds us there is no clear path. The story of Motley and the broader civil rights struggle, beyond a tally of victories and defeats, has much to teach us about the creativity, dedication, faith and boldness that keep the light burning.

Patricia Sullivan is the author of “Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White.”

Civil Rights Queen

Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality

By Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Pantheon. 497 pp. $30

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