As President Joe Biden reaffirms its commitment to appointing the first black woman to the United States Supreme Courtit makes sense to revisit the life and work of another black woman who profoundly shaped the law: Constance Baker Motley.
Motley was a “architect of desegregationwhich, over the decades, has inspired many women lawyers and judges, some of whom were on the short list of potential candidates. Yet she is often absent from the pantheon of great Americans. Many know Thurgood Marshall, but few outside legal circles talk about Motley’s vital role in dismantling racial segregation and gender discrimination.
As an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., Motley drafted the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Educationthe landmark 1954 case in which the Court unanimously ruled that “separate educational institutions are inherently unequal” and violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Additionally, Motley has handled a number of cases that applied the Brown decision in elementary and secondary schools across the South. She also argued cases that broke down racial barriers at area institutions of higher education, including the University of Mississippi, where James Meredith was admitted in 1962.
Later, during his political tenure and on the federal bench from the mid-1960s, Motley continued to advocate for the rights of the most marginalized Americans and became a beloved figure in the first movement for prisoners’ rights.
In his magnificent new volume,Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Fight for EqualityTomiko Brown-Nagin, Dean of Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and 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 pioneer of Leviathan’s achievements the dimension and attention they deserve.
“The invisibility of this fascinating woman in our public histories and popular culture distorts our idea of who rebuilt America,” Brown-Nagin writes. “Motley’s invisibility in our nation’s history deceives us all. But her absence is particularly damaging 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 his book, published this week, and the enduring relevance of Motley’s battles for racial equality.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The title of your book, “Civil Rights Queen”, is appropriate. But why is Constance Baker Motley not 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 the role of black women in it?
The first reason is that, in Western societies, historical significance is coded as masculine, so that men’s lives are deemed worthy of study and memory. In this context, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall became well-known figures in American history, studied by students from elementary school through high school. And I want to say that it is as it should be.
Nevertheless, there should be room for a figure like Constance Baker Motley, who was a remarkable woman and a legal giant. Called the queen of civil rights in her day, she was the counterpart of Marshall, who went by the name Mr. Civil Rights and was his mentor. He called Motley his equal and said she had just joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and “took over.”
A second reason she is probably less well known is that she was not promoted to director-attorney of the NAACP LDF. When Marshall resigned, the job went to a respected lawyer, Jack Greenberg. And the thing is, history rarely remembers #2, and she was in the position of #2. I think that robbed her of some of the fame that she otherwise would have had.
Then there is a third reason. In her third phase (of her career), Motley was appointed to court (the US District Court for the Southern District of New York). It was a huge honor, but at the same time, the judges are cloistered. There are few judges, other than the Justices of the United States Supreme Court, who are well known in the general society.
Could you describe for me Motley’s role in cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, and tell me why these cases matter in today’s environment?
The starting point is perhaps with Brown v. Board of Education, one of the most important constitutional law cases of the 20th century. This is the case in which the Court unanimously ruled that state-imposed segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Motley was part of the legal team that helped change our country in this upbringing, and she was the only woman on the legal team.
Motley has also argued school desegregation cases in Atlanta and Mobile and throughout the South, and she has helped desegregate higher education at landmark universities in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. It was through Motley’s work that black students entered these universities in large numbers.
She has also, as a judge, ruled on important cases. I would highlight her role in implementing Title VII, the Employment Discrimination Act that was part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She was instrumental in a settlement in a case brought by law school graduates arguing that one of the most prestigious law firms was denying 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 likely experienced discrimination at work and therefore he concluded, could not be right.
Motley rejected that invitation and turned the argument around, stating a principle that has lasting significance. And it 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 any experience or identity can adjudicate a case, then we’re in for a really bad time. And this principle, the Blank Principle, has been applied in the context of lawyers bringing recusal motions based on a judge’s race or gender or LGBTQ status.
What were some of the challenges Motley faced early in his 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 few 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 faculty of Law. And that is to say that it was a difficult experience for her. She wrote that if someone had taken a bet, no one would have bet on her. And yet, she continued to have this glorious career in law.
But as she pleaded, she faced some of the same indignities as her clients. For example, she was not allowed to stay in white-owned hotels or eat in white-owned restaurants. So she lost weight when she came down south because there wasn’t enough food. She didn’t have the ability to enter a restaurant when she needed to. Lawyers had to rely on the kindness of friends or African Americans in the community who may have had boarding houses, and this was not always sure to materialize as blacks who assisted NAACP lawyers LDF were themselves subject to reprisals.
Then there was the problem of sometimes dealing with disrespect from white lawyers and even judges in those courtrooms where she was usually the only woman. Few people had seen a black lawyer, let alone the combination of a black man and a female lawyer. So she really stood out in a way that threatened standards, and sometimes the lawyers on the other side were disrespectful.
When Motley was in Mississippi, an attorney who was defending the University of Mississippi refused to shake his hand. While working on one of the cases defending the Birmingham civil rights movement, she appeared in the courtroom and the judge said: well you are a woman. In other words, Why are you here? And how can it be that among the lawyers who sit at the council table, it is you who really represent the movement?
Motley, whom Thurgood Marshall had taught not to react to such swipes and, in some cases, to laugh at them, veered off and said:Well, actually, I’m the NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney assigned to this case. I have experience of this type of case, and that is why it is I who am before you and who will insist on the file.
What motivated Motley to constantly put his life on the line to litigate cases aimed at dismantling 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 this household and in New Haven – there were progressive elements in the 1930s – when she reached adulthood she developed an interest in social justice and went to law school, even though people thought that she, as a black girl, was crazy to have that aspiration. She was told she should be a hairdresser. But she challenged that, because she had a sense of mission. She was very smart. She could see the discrimination around her and wanted to be helpful in the fight.
Motley was quite brave. She has argued a number of cases in the South under threat of death. That was certainly the case in the Ole Miss case. In this process, two people were killed. But she did this work because she believed in the principle. And of course, she worked with a group of lawyers who together formed a community dedicated to social justice.