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Civil Rights Queen

Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality

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$21.00 US
On sale Mar 07, 2023 | 528 Pages | 978-0-525-43610-2
Here is the first major biography of one of our most influential judges—an activist lawyer who became the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary—that provides an eye-opening account of the twin struggles for gender equality and civil rights in the 20th Century.

Born to an aspirational blue-collar family during the Great Depression, Constance Baker Motley was expected to find herself a good career as a hair dresser. Instead, she became the first black woman to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court, the first of ten she would eventually argue. The only black woman member in the legal team at the NAACP's Inc. Fund at the time, she defended Martin Luther King in Birmingham, helped to argue in Brown vs. The Board of Education, and played a critical role in vanquishing Jim Crow laws throughout the South. She was the first black woman elected to the state Senate in New York, the first woman elected Manhattan Borough President, and the first black woman appointed to the federal judiciary.
    
Civil Rights Queen captures the story of a remarkable American life, a figure who remade law and inspired the imaginations of African Americans across the country. Burnished with an extraordinary wealth of research, award-winning, esteemed Civil Rights and legal historian and dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Tomiko Brown-Nagin brings Motley to life in these pages. Brown-Nagin compels us to ponder some of our most timeless and urgent questions—how do the historically marginalized access the corridors of power? What is the price of the ticket? How does access to power shape individuals committed to social justice? In Civil Rights Queen, she dramatically fills out the picture of some of the most profound judicial and societal change made in twentieth-century America.

Finalist for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography 
Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize

“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

“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, 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 includes a remarkable strand of autobiography . . . a scrupulously researched study in power. Brown . . . bridges the often unbridgeable groups of American society.” —Harvard Magazine

“This nuanced biography of Constance Baker Motley examines the paradoxes in the remarkable life of a ‘first’: the first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate, the first female Manhattan borough president, the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary. . . . That Motley is little known today is ‘a kind of historical malpractice,’ Brown-Nagin writes; this book is a convincing corrective.” —The New Yorker

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

“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, 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 Motley…in 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

“This exemplary biography is timely and essential.” —The Washington Post

“Illuminating. . . . Thoughtful. . . . Civil Rights Queen is the result of diligent research. . . . Poignant. . . . A balanced assessment of a brave and brilliant woman who helped to reconfigure the system before she became a part of it. . . . Brown-Nagin honors her subject by being resolutely direct and unsentimental—steely, if you will.” —Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

“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”

“Meticulously researched . . . superbly elucidated . . . Brown-Nagin excels at packing in intriguing minute details while still making them easily understood. Civil Rights Queen is the unforgettable story of a legal pioneer who changed the course of history.” —BookPage [starred review]

“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.” —Publishers Weekly [starred review]

“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

“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 is an essential text . . . and a testament to one of the most remarkable women in history who deserves far more recognition.” —Booklist [starred review]
FROM THE INTRODUCTION:
 
Sam Terry was killed in cold blood. On February 27, 1949, a Sunday afternoon in rural Manchester, Georgia, about sixty-five miles south of Atlanta, white officers shot Terry—a veteran of World War II, a member of the “Greatest Generation,” and a thirty-seven-year-old Black man—three times in the back, once in the side.
 
Terry had been arrested for a minor infraction that had nothing whatsoever to do with him. Two officers hauled him from his home and locked him in a jail cell. While he was detained, they unloaded their weapons on him, claiming he had resisted arrest and tried to break away from his cell. Terry died of his wounds two days later. In the aftermath, the local sheriff disclaimed all responsibility. His men had done nothing wrong, he said: “no evidence was found” that Terry had been “mistreated” by the arresting officers—the same men who shot and killed him.
 
Terry’s widow, Minnie Kate, flatly contradicted the sheriff. Sam had not resisted arrest, his wife asserted; suffering from the mumps, he had been in no condition to attack anyone, much less officers of the law. But Sam had protested—verbally—when the officers had “manhandled” Minnie Kate and briefly placed her under arrest on trumped-up charges. Angered by Sam’s defense of his wife, the offi­cers yelled, “Shut up, you black son-of-a-bitch or we’ll kill you.” Once they arrived at the jail, the officers “shoved” Sam into a cell, “followed him in,” “slammed the door,” and “immediately after” fired several shots at him. Minnie Kate, standing just outside the cell door, witnessed the events unfold; what she had seen and heard was an entirely unjustified shooting—a barbaric murder. What was more, Minnie Kate said, while Sam bled profusely from the gunshot wounds in his intestines, the officers had insisted that she had “better not holler,” or she “would get the same thing.”
 
News accounts and an attending doctor confirmed critical ele­ments of Minnie Kate Terry’s version of events. The Atlanta Consti­tution established that the doors of the cell had been locked when officers repeatedly shot Sam Terry. And the doctor who treated the veteran after the incident said that he had been shot four times. But Minnie Kate had no recourse in the state of Georgia, which at that time was governed by Herman Talmadge, a vicious racist. So she reached out to the national NAACP and its lawyers. Along with her allies, Minnie Kate “urge[d]” the lawyers to take “action” to “see that this injustice is brought to the limelight” and the “guilty ones are punished.” Murders of Black men “are spreading throughout the Southland.” She was not wrong. A reign of terror that began around 1880 continued through the mid-twentieth century: during this time, white mobs across the South, aided and abetted by law enforcement, murdered hundreds of African Americans, and often targeted Black veterans.
 
Terry’s death came to the attention of Thurgood Marshall, the chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF, or Inc. Fund), and his legal assistant, Constance Baker Motley, then just three years out of law school. Springing into action, Motley wrote to Tom C. Clark, Attorney General of the United States, and requested a federal investigation. Marshall followed up with a letter to the Department of Justice, seeking the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Nothing happened.
 
In 1950—more than a year after Minnie Kate Terry had buried her husband—Motley once again followed up with federal officials, to no avail. The Department of Justice closed the case, saying that the evidence was insufficient to support a prosecution. This failure to thoroughly investigate, much less prosecute, fit a pattern. Despite its wartime condemnation of the racism and violence of the Nazi regime, the U.S. government virtually ignored the wave of anti-Black terrorism—the all-too-frequent beatings, shootings, and lynchings of African Americans—that occurred in the postwar South. Veterans, who led a growing resistance to anti-Black oppression, were rou­tinely victimized and in dire need of representation. Constance Baker Motley, then in her twenties, became one of the most prominent and tireless advocates for African Americans during this turbulent era.
 
By 1950, African Americans from not just the South but across the whole United States counted on Motley to stand up for racial justice and protect the rights of Black citizens. Handling dozens of cases at a time in a dizzying array of subject areas, she deployed her sharp legal skills to combat discrimination in the criminal legal system, in education, in housing, in the workplace, in politics, and in countless other areas. Her advocacy took her to small towns and cities through­out the South, to the urban North, and to the Midwest.
 
Wherever she appeared, the striking and audacious Motley cap­tivated and stunned onlookers. At that time, few had seen a woman lawyer or even a Black lawyer, much less the extraordinary combi­nation of the two. The novelty of Motley and her courtroom talents made her an icon of equality. “She’s a prime mover in the cause of civil rights across the nation,” wrote one reporter, and “may justly be called ‘The Civil Rights Queen.’” Part heroine and part warrior, the moniker implied, she wielded the law like a sword of justice.
 
In bestowing the affectionate honorific, observers did not merely acknowledge her work inside the courtroom. The title implied that Motley had transcended her lawyerly role. She often created a “sensa­tion.” When “word got out that not only was there a ‘nigra lawyer’” but “a ‘nigra’ woman lawyer,” she recalled about her first trial in Jackson, Mississippi, it was “like a circus in town.” “They were amazed at the way I spoke.” Incapable of reconciling the lawyer’s role with a Black woman’s status in American society, some whites responded with tremendous hostility. In a federal courtroom during one trial, a white male lawyer, unwilling to call the imposing woman “Mrs. Motley,” instead “pointed his finger” in his opponent’s direction and called her “she.” In a rare show of anger, Motley set him straight: “If you can’t address me as Mrs. Motley, don’t address me at all.” A trans­formational lawyer, a trailblazing woman, and an exceptional Afri­can American, the Civil Rights Queen personified the extraordinary social change that she brought about through law.
 
Few would have predicted her rise. Motley’s own parents found her ambition to become a lawyer far-fetched. But she defied their expectations—something she did over and over again in her profes­sional life. It was Thurgood Marshall, “Mr. Civil Rights,” who gave the young lawyer her big break. Before meeting him, Motley had faced a string of rejections from Wall Street law firms led by white men. If Motley repelled these powerful white male lawyers, she fascinated Marshall. He offered her a job at LDF on the spot, and she happily accepted.
 
There, Motley flourished. “Connie just walked in, walked in and took over,” Marshall recalled years later. She handled hundreds of civil rights cases over a twenty-year period that began in 1945 and continued through 1965—efforts that remade American law and society. In 1954, she played an invaluable role in Brown v. Board of Education, a singular case in twentieth-century American constitu­tional law. The unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawed state-mandated racial segregation in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. Motley desegregated flagship public universities in Georgia and Mississippi. She represented the Birmingham Chil­dren’s Marchers, who were mercilessly attacked and thrown out of school for participating in antisegregation protests. She helped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. escape the horrors of a jail cell in rural Geor­gia. Throughout the course of her work for the civil rights movement, Motley compiled an enviable record as a trial and appellate lawyer. One of just a few women lawyers and the first Black woman lawyer known to appear at the Supreme Court, she won nine of the ten cases that she argued before the nation’s highest court. She summed up this work for the movement by saying, “We have wrought a miracle.”
 
But Motley’s legacy does not only derive from her exceptional career as a civil rights lawyer. After garnering fame as an attorney, she found a different way to fight for social justice, embarking on an entirely new career—in politics. Again, she made history. In 1964, New Yorkers elected Motley to the state senate; she was the first Black woman to serve in that legislative body. In 1965, she made political history once more when New Yorkers elected her to the Manhattan borough presidency; she was the first woman to serve in the post.
 
Motley then pursued a third act. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, making her the first African American woman to sit on the federal bench. During her more than thirty years on the court, Judge Motley decided numerous landmark cases in fields ranging from criminal law to civil rights and corporate law. The judge’s rulings in civil rights cases defined her judicial career. Over the objections of lawyers who insisted that as a former civil rights lawyer and a Black woman she could not be “fair,” Motley rendered decisions that implemented the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opened the workplace to women law­yers, journalists, professors, and municipal workers. At the dawn of mass incarceration, she issued a historic ruling mandating due process rights and humane treatment for the incarcerated. And in a case involving low-level drug offenders, she struck down sentences mandated by a new regime of tough-on-crime narcotics laws that left millions of Americans behind bars. Motley’s accomplishments, outstanding for any lawyer and unheard of among women attor­neys, make her one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth century—a woman whose work created a “more perfect” union.
 
[#]
  • FINALIST | 2023
    PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography
  • FINALIST | 2022
    Los Angeles Times Book Prize
© Rose Lincoln
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. View titles by Tomiko Brown-Nagin

About

Here is the first major biography of one of our most influential judges—an activist lawyer who became the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary—that provides an eye-opening account of the twin struggles for gender equality and civil rights in the 20th Century.

Born to an aspirational blue-collar family during the Great Depression, Constance Baker Motley was expected to find herself a good career as a hair dresser. Instead, she became the first black woman to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court, the first of ten she would eventually argue. The only black woman member in the legal team at the NAACP's Inc. Fund at the time, she defended Martin Luther King in Birmingham, helped to argue in Brown vs. The Board of Education, and played a critical role in vanquishing Jim Crow laws throughout the South. She was the first black woman elected to the state Senate in New York, the first woman elected Manhattan Borough President, and the first black woman appointed to the federal judiciary.
    
Civil Rights Queen captures the story of a remarkable American life, a figure who remade law and inspired the imaginations of African Americans across the country. Burnished with an extraordinary wealth of research, award-winning, esteemed Civil Rights and legal historian and dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Tomiko Brown-Nagin brings Motley to life in these pages. Brown-Nagin compels us to ponder some of our most timeless and urgent questions—how do the historically marginalized access the corridors of power? What is the price of the ticket? How does access to power shape individuals committed to social justice? In Civil Rights Queen, she dramatically fills out the picture of some of the most profound judicial and societal change made in twentieth-century America.

Finalist for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography 
Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize

“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

“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, 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 includes a remarkable strand of autobiography . . . a scrupulously researched study in power. Brown . . . bridges the often unbridgeable groups of American society.” —Harvard Magazine

“This nuanced biography of Constance Baker Motley examines the paradoxes in the remarkable life of a ‘first’: the first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate, the first female Manhattan borough president, the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary. . . . That Motley is little known today is ‘a kind of historical malpractice,’ Brown-Nagin writes; this book is a convincing corrective.” —The New Yorker

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

“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, 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 Motley…in 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

“This exemplary biography is timely and essential.” —The Washington Post

“Illuminating. . . . Thoughtful. . . . Civil Rights Queen is the result of diligent research. . . . Poignant. . . . A balanced assessment of a brave and brilliant woman who helped to reconfigure the system before she became a part of it. . . . Brown-Nagin honors her subject by being resolutely direct and unsentimental—steely, if you will.” —Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

“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”

“Meticulously researched . . . superbly elucidated . . . Brown-Nagin excels at packing in intriguing minute details while still making them easily understood. Civil Rights Queen is the unforgettable story of a legal pioneer who changed the course of history.” —BookPage [starred review]

“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.” —Publishers Weekly [starred review]

“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

“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 is an essential text . . . and a testament to one of the most remarkable women in history who deserves far more recognition.” —Booklist [starred review]

Excerpt

FROM THE INTRODUCTION:
 
Sam Terry was killed in cold blood. On February 27, 1949, a Sunday afternoon in rural Manchester, Georgia, about sixty-five miles south of Atlanta, white officers shot Terry—a veteran of World War II, a member of the “Greatest Generation,” and a thirty-seven-year-old Black man—three times in the back, once in the side.
 
Terry had been arrested for a minor infraction that had nothing whatsoever to do with him. Two officers hauled him from his home and locked him in a jail cell. While he was detained, they unloaded their weapons on him, claiming he had resisted arrest and tried to break away from his cell. Terry died of his wounds two days later. In the aftermath, the local sheriff disclaimed all responsibility. His men had done nothing wrong, he said: “no evidence was found” that Terry had been “mistreated” by the arresting officers—the same men who shot and killed him.
 
Terry’s widow, Minnie Kate, flatly contradicted the sheriff. Sam had not resisted arrest, his wife asserted; suffering from the mumps, he had been in no condition to attack anyone, much less officers of the law. But Sam had protested—verbally—when the officers had “manhandled” Minnie Kate and briefly placed her under arrest on trumped-up charges. Angered by Sam’s defense of his wife, the offi­cers yelled, “Shut up, you black son-of-a-bitch or we’ll kill you.” Once they arrived at the jail, the officers “shoved” Sam into a cell, “followed him in,” “slammed the door,” and “immediately after” fired several shots at him. Minnie Kate, standing just outside the cell door, witnessed the events unfold; what she had seen and heard was an entirely unjustified shooting—a barbaric murder. What was more, Minnie Kate said, while Sam bled profusely from the gunshot wounds in his intestines, the officers had insisted that she had “better not holler,” or she “would get the same thing.”
 
News accounts and an attending doctor confirmed critical ele­ments of Minnie Kate Terry’s version of events. The Atlanta Consti­tution established that the doors of the cell had been locked when officers repeatedly shot Sam Terry. And the doctor who treated the veteran after the incident said that he had been shot four times. But Minnie Kate had no recourse in the state of Georgia, which at that time was governed by Herman Talmadge, a vicious racist. So she reached out to the national NAACP and its lawyers. Along with her allies, Minnie Kate “urge[d]” the lawyers to take “action” to “see that this injustice is brought to the limelight” and the “guilty ones are punished.” Murders of Black men “are spreading throughout the Southland.” She was not wrong. A reign of terror that began around 1880 continued through the mid-twentieth century: during this time, white mobs across the South, aided and abetted by law enforcement, murdered hundreds of African Americans, and often targeted Black veterans.
 
Terry’s death came to the attention of Thurgood Marshall, the chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF, or Inc. Fund), and his legal assistant, Constance Baker Motley, then just three years out of law school. Springing into action, Motley wrote to Tom C. Clark, Attorney General of the United States, and requested a federal investigation. Marshall followed up with a letter to the Department of Justice, seeking the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Nothing happened.
 
In 1950—more than a year after Minnie Kate Terry had buried her husband—Motley once again followed up with federal officials, to no avail. The Department of Justice closed the case, saying that the evidence was insufficient to support a prosecution. This failure to thoroughly investigate, much less prosecute, fit a pattern. Despite its wartime condemnation of the racism and violence of the Nazi regime, the U.S. government virtually ignored the wave of anti-Black terrorism—the all-too-frequent beatings, shootings, and lynchings of African Americans—that occurred in the postwar South. Veterans, who led a growing resistance to anti-Black oppression, were rou­tinely victimized and in dire need of representation. Constance Baker Motley, then in her twenties, became one of the most prominent and tireless advocates for African Americans during this turbulent era.
 
By 1950, African Americans from not just the South but across the whole United States counted on Motley to stand up for racial justice and protect the rights of Black citizens. Handling dozens of cases at a time in a dizzying array of subject areas, she deployed her sharp legal skills to combat discrimination in the criminal legal system, in education, in housing, in the workplace, in politics, and in countless other areas. Her advocacy took her to small towns and cities through­out the South, to the urban North, and to the Midwest.
 
Wherever she appeared, the striking and audacious Motley cap­tivated and stunned onlookers. At that time, few had seen a woman lawyer or even a Black lawyer, much less the extraordinary combi­nation of the two. The novelty of Motley and her courtroom talents made her an icon of equality. “She’s a prime mover in the cause of civil rights across the nation,” wrote one reporter, and “may justly be called ‘The Civil Rights Queen.’” Part heroine and part warrior, the moniker implied, she wielded the law like a sword of justice.
 
In bestowing the affectionate honorific, observers did not merely acknowledge her work inside the courtroom. The title implied that Motley had transcended her lawyerly role. She often created a “sensa­tion.” When “word got out that not only was there a ‘nigra lawyer’” but “a ‘nigra’ woman lawyer,” she recalled about her first trial in Jackson, Mississippi, it was “like a circus in town.” “They were amazed at the way I spoke.” Incapable of reconciling the lawyer’s role with a Black woman’s status in American society, some whites responded with tremendous hostility. In a federal courtroom during one trial, a white male lawyer, unwilling to call the imposing woman “Mrs. Motley,” instead “pointed his finger” in his opponent’s direction and called her “she.” In a rare show of anger, Motley set him straight: “If you can’t address me as Mrs. Motley, don’t address me at all.” A trans­formational lawyer, a trailblazing woman, and an exceptional Afri­can American, the Civil Rights Queen personified the extraordinary social change that she brought about through law.
 
Few would have predicted her rise. Motley’s own parents found her ambition to become a lawyer far-fetched. But she defied their expectations—something she did over and over again in her profes­sional life. It was Thurgood Marshall, “Mr. Civil Rights,” who gave the young lawyer her big break. Before meeting him, Motley had faced a string of rejections from Wall Street law firms led by white men. If Motley repelled these powerful white male lawyers, she fascinated Marshall. He offered her a job at LDF on the spot, and she happily accepted.
 
There, Motley flourished. “Connie just walked in, walked in and took over,” Marshall recalled years later. She handled hundreds of civil rights cases over a twenty-year period that began in 1945 and continued through 1965—efforts that remade American law and society. In 1954, she played an invaluable role in Brown v. Board of Education, a singular case in twentieth-century American constitu­tional law. The unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawed state-mandated racial segregation in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. Motley desegregated flagship public universities in Georgia and Mississippi. She represented the Birmingham Chil­dren’s Marchers, who were mercilessly attacked and thrown out of school for participating in antisegregation protests. She helped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. escape the horrors of a jail cell in rural Geor­gia. Throughout the course of her work for the civil rights movement, Motley compiled an enviable record as a trial and appellate lawyer. One of just a few women lawyers and the first Black woman lawyer known to appear at the Supreme Court, she won nine of the ten cases that she argued before the nation’s highest court. She summed up this work for the movement by saying, “We have wrought a miracle.”
 
But Motley’s legacy does not only derive from her exceptional career as a civil rights lawyer. After garnering fame as an attorney, she found a different way to fight for social justice, embarking on an entirely new career—in politics. Again, she made history. In 1964, New Yorkers elected Motley to the state senate; she was the first Black woman to serve in that legislative body. In 1965, she made political history once more when New Yorkers elected her to the Manhattan borough presidency; she was the first woman to serve in the post.
 
Motley then pursued a third act. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, making her the first African American woman to sit on the federal bench. During her more than thirty years on the court, Judge Motley decided numerous landmark cases in fields ranging from criminal law to civil rights and corporate law. The judge’s rulings in civil rights cases defined her judicial career. Over the objections of lawyers who insisted that as a former civil rights lawyer and a Black woman she could not be “fair,” Motley rendered decisions that implemented the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opened the workplace to women law­yers, journalists, professors, and municipal workers. At the dawn of mass incarceration, she issued a historic ruling mandating due process rights and humane treatment for the incarcerated. And in a case involving low-level drug offenders, she struck down sentences mandated by a new regime of tough-on-crime narcotics laws that left millions of Americans behind bars. Motley’s accomplishments, outstanding for any lawyer and unheard of among women attor­neys, make her one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth century—a woman whose work created a “more perfect” union.
 
[#]

Awards

  • FINALIST | 2023
    PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography
  • FINALIST | 2022
    Los Angeles Times Book Prize

Author

© Rose Lincoln
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. View titles by Tomiko Brown-Nagin

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