Civil Rights Queen


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Table of Contents

Introduction . . . 3

1. "The Base of This Great Ambition": Nevis and New Haven . . . 15
2. "I Discovered Myself": The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Dawn of a Political Conscience . . . 28
3. "Like a Fairy Tale": Black Exceptionalism, Philanthropy, and a Path to Higher Education . . . 39
4. A Fortuitous Meeting with "Mr. Civil Rights": Thurgood Marshall and an Offer Not to Be Refused . . . 53
5. "They Hovered Over and Cared for Each Other": The Uncommon Union of Constance Baker and Joel Motley Jr. . . . 56

6. "A Professional Woman": Breaking Barriers at Work and in the Courtroom . . . 65
7. "We All Felt the Excruciating Pressure": Making History in Brown v. Board of Education . . . 79
8. "The Fight Has Just Begun": The Decade-Long Slog to Desegregate the University of Florida College of Law . . . 91
9. "We Made a Mistake": "Poor Character," "Loose Morals," and Untold Sacrifices in Pursuit of Higher Education at the University of Alabama . . . 98

10. The "Best Plaintiffs Ever": Desegregating the University of Georgia . . . 113
11. A "Difficulty with the Idea of a Woman": The Setback of 1961 . . . 126
12. "That's Your Case": James Meredith and the Battle to Desegregate the University of Mississippi . . . 141
13. "I Am Human After All": Trauma and Hardship in the Long Battle at Ole Miss . . . 158
14. An "Eye-Opening Experience": The Birmingham Civil Rights Campaign . . . 177

15. "An Ideal Candidate": The Making of a Political Progressive . . . 201
16. "Crisis of Leadership": A Clash Between Radical and Reform Politics . . . 217
17. "Not a Feminist": The Manhattan Borough Presidency . . . 228

18. "First": The Judicial Confirmation . . . 247
19. "A Tough Old Bird": Judge Motley's Court . . . 264
20. "The Weeping and the Wailing": The Black Panther Party, the FBI, and the Huggins Family . . . 272
21. "Pawns in a Very Dangerous Game": Crime, Punishment, and Prisoners' Rights . . . 283
22. A "Woman Lawyer" and a "Woman Judge": Making Opportunity for Women in Law . . . 302
23. "For a Girl, You Know a Lot About Sports": The New York Yankees Strike Out in Judge Motley's Courtroom . . . 316
24. No "Protecting Angel": Blacks, Latinos, and Ordinary People in Judge Motley's Courtroom . . . 327
Epilogue: Legacies . . . 345

Acknowledgments . . .363
Notes . . . 367
Sources . . . 445
Index . . . 469

About the Author

TOMIKO BROWN-NAGIN is Dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, and Professor of History at Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In 2019, she was appointed chair of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of the American Philosophical Society, and of the American Law Institute, and a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. Her previous book, Courage to Dissent won the Bancroft Prize in 2011. She frequently appears as a commentator in media. She lives in Boston with her family.


"In this immersive and eye-opening biography, Bancroft Prize winner Brown-Nagin places the groundbreaking legal and political career of Constance Baker Motley in the context of the civil rights and women's rights movements...Brilliantly balancing the details of Motley's professional and personal life with lucid legal analysis, this riveting account shines a well-deserved-and long overdue-spotlight on a remarkable trailblazer."
-Publisher's Weekly, "Books of the Week"

"Written by legal and Civil Rights historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin...this biography about [an] iconic female the perfect nonfiction addition to your bookshelf this year."
-The Appalachian, "Most Anticipated Books of 2022"

The activist may not have been a household name but her work as "the only Black woman member in the legal team at the NAACP's Inc. Fund," helped further the fight for full race and gender equality in America. Written by a legal expert, this biography breaks down just how impactful her contributions were." -Essence, 56 New Books We Can't Wait To Read in 2022
-Essence, "56 New Books We Can't Wait To Read In 2022"

"Stirring...An excellent exploration of the life of an admirable pioneer who deserves to be far better known."
-Kirkus Reviews, *starred review*

"Civil Rights Queen includes a remarkable strand of autobiography...a scrupulously researched study in power. Brown...bridges the often unbridgeable groups of American society."
-Harvard Magazine

"Brown-Nagin's well-written account places an often-overlooked figure in the context of history and argues that Motley should be remembered as one of the principal strategists of the civil rights movement.... [
Civil Rights Queen
] not only shines a light on a forgotten civil rights pioneer but also asks insightful questions about the relationship of power, gender, and social justice. This is an important addition."
-Library Journal

"Rigorously researched and elegantly written, Civil Rights Queen is a seminal biography of an extraordinary figure whose legacy has been obscured for far too long. Brown-Nagin powerfully illuminates Motley's journey into the heart of American law and politics, and the result is a magisterial work that befits its subject."
-Ibram X. Kendi, bestselling author of How to Be an Antiracist

"Now, at last, in Civil Rights Queen, the brilliant historian and legal scholar, Tomiko Brown-Nagin has given Constance Motley's life and heroic achievements the attention they deserve. It's difficult for me to imagine a biography we've needed more. Civil Rights Queen restores a truly brave, courageous, and brilliant lawyer and jurist to her proper place in American history."
-Henry Louis Gates, Jr. the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University

"Civil Rights Queen is a brilliant work, elegantly written and deeply researched. Brown-Nagin does complete justice to the life of Constance Baker Motley, one of the Twentieth Century's towering figures."
-Annette Gordon-Reed

"Civil Rights Queen is an essential text... and a testament to one of the most remarkable women in history who deserves far more recognition."
-Booklist, *starred review*

"[An] immersive and eye-opening biography . . . Brilliantly balancing the details of Motley's professional and personal life with lucid legal analysis, this riveting account shines a well-deserved-and long overdue-spotlight on a remarkable trailblazer."
-Publishers Weekly, *starred review*

"Constance Baker Motley is one of the most important and under appreciated heroes in the history of the civil rights movement. This brilliantly written, exhaustively researched, and profoundly illuminating biography places Motley firmly atop the Mount Rushmore of the movement's legal architects. Tomiko Brown-Nagin has produced a magnificent work of historical recovery, a page turning narrative history of the civil rights movement, and a biographical tour de force that will linger in hearts and minds long after the final page is read."
-Peniel E. Joseph, author of The Sword and The Shield

"Constance Baker Motley ought to be as well-known as Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a better world, Motley would be a household name. With this urgently necessary and exhaustive biography, Tomiko Brown-Nagin is building that better world."
-Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States

"Compelling . . . Civil Rights Queen is a must read for anyone who dares to believe that equal justice under the law is possible and is in search of a model for how to make it a reality."
-Anita Hill

"Compelling, candid, and highly revelatory. By examining in striking detail the remarkable life of Constance Baker Motley-a formidable lawyer turned politician turned judge - Professor Brown-Nagin makes a major contribution to several fields: race relations, women's studies, the study of the legal profession, and modern American history."
-Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

"In Civil Rights Queen, award-winning historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin recognizes an unsung American heroine . . . Through an intimate, behind the scenes journey into what Motley did, where she came from and how she got there, we learn the keys to Black women's successes in the 20th century. Civil Rights Queen is a dazzling life story that inspires readers to discover the Constance Baker Motley in ourselves."
-Martha Jones, author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

"A brilliantly researched and riveting biography. Tomiko Brown-Nagin models the care, preparation and excellence of Motley; through a decade of effort she has written an instant classic that rightfully places Motley at the center of the American struggle for racial justice."
-Sheryll Cashin, Author of White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality

"Tomiko Brown-Nagin brings a story-teller's art, meticulous research, and astute legal and psychological insights to the life and times of a central figure of the civil rights movement. This book rectifies the exclusions experienced by Constance Baker historical memory and provides a riveting account of how a working class daughter of West Indian immigrants imagined and created a life of doing justice as a warrior for change. Readers will . . . never forget the woman whose outspoken, proud, and ferocious sense of justice changed her fortunes while she challenged America's racial apartheid, gender barriers, and day-to-day obstacles to human thriving."
-Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University

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