Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called Constance Baker Motley “one of my favorite people,” and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited Motley with showing her and others of her generation “that law and courts could become positive forces in achieving our nation’s highest aspiration.” However, far too few Americans know Motley’s name or her legacy, and that dearth of recognition struck Harvard professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin as “a kind of historical malpractice.” She hopes to right this wrong with her meticulously researched, fascinating biography, Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality.
The fact that Motley became such a civil rights legend is ironic, given that her father said he “couldn’t stand American blacks.” Her mother, meanwhile, advised Motley to become a hairdresser. Regal, stately and tall, Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1921 to parents who had emigrated from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Despite her family’s poverty, she was raised to think of herself as “superior to others—to African Americans in particular.” Nonetheless, living in the shadow of Yale University, she received an excellent education and developed an intense interest in racial inequality. In the end, Motley spent her life trying to improve “the lives of the very people [her father] had spent a lifetime castigating.”
Motley’s trailblazing career included work as a lawyer, politician and federal judge, and at every stage of her incredible journey, readers will feel as though they have a backstage pass. Brown-Nagin excels at packing in intriguing minute details while still making them easily understood, as well as at contextualizing each scene historically. Thurgood Marshall became Motley’s mentor on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and she played a crucial role in litigating Brown v. Board of Education. The sweep of history Motley inhabited is full of many such significant moments: visiting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in jail in Georgia; serving as James Meredith’s lawyer as he fought for admission to the University of Mississippi; having a heated televised debate with Malcolm X and more. She was the first Black woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing 10 cases and winning nine of them. Later, she was the first Black woman to become a New York state senator, as well as the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary.
While Motley’s storied career is precisely explored, readers may still feel at arm’s length from the woman herself. This may be due to the fact that Motley was a notably reserved woman, although by all accounts warm and engaging. As Brown-Nagin explains, Motley cultivated an “unperturbable demeanor out of the often unfriendly, if not downright hostile, environments she encountered as a result of being a first. Through these qualities, she protected herself; only a select few could peek behind her mask.”
Motley spent years paving the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and later as a judge, she helped implement it in a variety of areas. Civil Rights Queen is the unforgettable story of a legal pioneer who changed the course of history, superbly elucidated by Brown-Nagin.