Book cover

For years I have been wondering when someone would write a book about Constance Baker Motley, one of the most consequential activists in the modern-day freedom movement. Brown-Nagin, Dean of the Radcliffe Center for Advanced Studies and the Daniel Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University, has obliged me with a stunning portrait of the woman who came to be referred to as the Civil Rights Queen.

Motley’s parents were born in the small island country of Nevis, which until 1983, was a colony of Great Britain. Her parents, especially her father, were extremely proud of being subjects of the British Empire; they happily proclaimed their allegiance to the King and Queen and brooked no sass about the Royals. Colonialism could have been much more disastrous for Black Nevians than it was, but because there were so few whites on the island, and because blacks could be found at every level of society, their identity and heritage were not totally obliterated. Motley’s mother was a teacher and seamstress and her father was a cobbler. They immigrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, and settled in New Haven, Connecticut, a bastion of whiteness. There her mother found work as a domestic; her father served as a chef to several student societies at Yale University, including the ultra-secret and exclusive Skull and Bones.

During my years as a college professor, I often reminded my students that even though the Black American, Black Caribbean, and Black African experiences are not monolithic, each group faces color-based discrimination when it comes to jobs, housing, education, and public accommodations. Still, the Bakers were not totally locked out of life in New Haven. Black children could attend the public schools. Blacks in New Haven could find employment in the smaller munitions factories and service industries in the city and were able to vote. While Motley does not appear to have been unduly scarred by racism in New Haven, it was there and she was aware of it. At the age of seventeen, she wrote a poem titled “Listen Lord - from the Slums,” in which she compared and contrasted the way blacks and whites lived and placed the blame for racism squarely on the shoulders of white people. Yet northern Jim Crow generally lacked the extreme violence and humiliation directed at African Americans in the south, and she was the progeny of a black family from a majority black country. It appears she never doubted that she could achieve anything to which she set her mind and talents in spite of being black.

She excelled in school and remembered fondly two white teachers who mentored her and other Black students. After discovering the works of James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. Du Bois, her lifelong interest in race relations was kindled. She also had a front row seat to the work of Jane M. Bolin, the first black female judge in the United States, and George W. Crawford, a prominent black attorney in New Haven, who was state’s corporate counsel for the National Association of for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and had worked on cases challenging segregated education at the college and university levels. Baker was a go-getter; she joined a number of clubs and organizations, many of which touched on the problems of race and class. One cannot help but wonder if she knew then what her life’s mission would be.

Growing up during the Depression, Baker knew firsthand how precarious it was to make a living. She worked several menial and short-term jobs. She longed to go to college and law school, but her parents could not afford to send her. At the Dixwell House, a community center for blacks in New Haven, she met and impressed the wealthy white philanthropist Clarence W. Blakeslee, who financed the center, by speaking out at a meeting designed to learn why so few black youngsters utilized Dixwell House. Intrigued, Blakeslee invited her to his office the next day, and discovered her desire to attend college and law school. He sponsored her through both degrees. She began her education at Fisk University, often referred to as the “black Harvard,” but transferred to New York University–southern racism rankled her–and subsequently graduated from Harvard Law School. Baker was on her way.

Motley’s professional life can easily be divided into three phases, and in each phase she battled hard for equal rights for blacks. First, she was a groundbreaking attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Often the sole woman wherever she went, she faced sexism not just in the courtroom, but in the offices of the association. The venerable Thurgood Marshall, an unofficial saint in the annals of African American history, prevailed upon her during her job interview to climb a ladder so he could see her legs. She did so. Motley assisted in litigating Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, KS (1954), successfully fought to have James Meredith, a black veteran, admitted to the University of Mississippi–ole Miss–and helped the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the crucial Birmingham campaign in 1963. The second phase of her professional life saw her smash even more barriers. She was the first women elected to the New York State Senate, and as borough president of Manhattan. Finally, Motley crowned her professional career by being the first black woman appointed to the federal bench. Just like many women today, she often worried about balancing her personal life with her work. And while she shared a long, happy, and unusually egalitarian-for-its-time marriage with Joel Motley, Jr., a realtor, and they were the parents of a son, Joel Motley, III, her work, especially during her NAACP days, often came first. One can only imagine how her husband, son, and Motley herself felt about this.

Motley had a fascinating life! Brown-Nagin is a keen storyteller, and her writing makes that life fairly leap off the pages. I found it especially interesting that the judicial appointment seems to have been the least satisfying of her life’s work. Brown-Nagin says, “Her life on the bench illustrates a critically important phenomenon: when icons of opportunity and diversity take the reins of power in American institutions, the structure envelops them. That is the price of the ticket. The system admits outsiders who play by the rules, fits them into its logic, and permits incremental reform. The power structure does not fundamentally transform; at heart, it accommodates difference.” As a judge, Motley lacked the power and authority to smash through roadblocks as she had done early in her career. But as in everything else she had done, she modeled and promoted excellence on the bench.

While it is true that her time on the federal bench did not allow her the scope to which she was accustomed in terms of using the law as a tool to right injustices, in the final analysis, she was there. When I was growing up, I often heard it said that half of life, especially for those who are marginalized because of race, class, and gender, is about showing up. Constance Baker Motley not only showed up, she “showed out,” as we say in the Black community. She played a crucial role in making America a much more egalitarian country at a critical time in its history. With the publication of Civil Rights Queen, she has been recognized at last.

All hail the Queen.