‘Civil Rights Queen’ examines the legacy of Constance Baker Motley

As President Biden prepares to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, we revisit another historic first. Constance Baker Motley was the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary and the first to argue before the Supreme Court. Harvard law professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin joins Nicole Ellis to discuss her new book on Motley's life and legacy called, "Civil Rights Queen."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As President Biden prepares to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, it's an apt time to revisit another historic first.

    Nicole Ellis has more.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    Constance Baker Motley was the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary. Her career is punctuated by several historic firsts. And her work as a fearsome civil rights litigator, alongside Thurgood Marshall, changed the lives of millions in the Jim Crow South.

    But most people have never heard of her.

    Harvard Law Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin hopes to change that in her new book, "Civil Rights Queen."

    Tomiko, thank you for joining me.

    Constance was one of the best litigators of her time. She was also the first Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court. What do you think are some of the most important things about her legacy?

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Author:


    Well, the first thing is to know that she was there in the thick of the civil rights movement alongside Thurgood Marshall, Mr. Civil Rights. She was a civil rights queen and had tremendous impact as a lawyer, helping on Brown vs. Board of Education and a range of cases that really changed the legal architecture of this country, ranging from the higher education cases, to cases involving the right to counsel and civil protest.

    Her legacy is tremendous, including because, after she had made history as a civil rights lawyer, she was in New York City politics and then appointed to the bench.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    Well, let's dive into some of those big cases she worked on, because she wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education, and she argued several historic school desegregation cases.

    For example, in this audio clip that I will play, she's at the Supreme Court defending Black students who were arrested during a sit-in protest at white lunch counters in Alabama.

    Let's take a listen.

  • Potter Stewart, Former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice:

    What I didn't get and I still don't quite, Ms. Motley, was your reference to affirmative legislation requiring non-segregation.

  • Constance Baker Motley, Attorney:

    Well, what I have in mind is, but, here, Alabama has not.

  • Potter Stewart:

    As there is, of course, there's much of that legislation in the various states.

  • Constance Baker Motley:

    That's right. Alabama in this case has not required equal treatment of Negroes in places of public accommodations, as this court, in deciding the civil rights cases, assume that the states would.

    The states, of course, have done just the opposite. And they have done it in a massive way, so that the whole society is set up on a segregated basis.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    Why do you think she was so successful in arguing these cases?

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin:

    I love hearing that, that video.

    She is successful because she knows exactly what she's talking about. And she makes a point of saying that the NAACP was able to win so many cases because of their experience. They were prepared. She knew the law backwards and forwards.

    In addition, she was steely, so calm under pressure, which is something that Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston taught her. And she just had a fantastic delivery. And, of course, justice was on the side of the civil rights movement, and the Supreme Court during the '50s and '60s became aware of that.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    Just like the name of your book, those skills and that legal prowess made Constance Baker Motley the civil rights queen of her time.

    But we do not hear about her in history books. Why don't we know who she is?

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin:

    That's right.

    Well, as I argue in my book, the absence of her name on the lips of every American, unlike with respect to Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr., is in part because historical significance and leadership are coded male.

    We don't think of women as leaders, in the way that they deserve. And so it's not surprising, ultimately, that Motley is — has been relatively overlooked in the literature.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    How do we contextualize Motley's career and those setbacks that she experienced as a Black person and as a woman as we look ahead to Biden's forthcoming nomination?

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin:

    Well, I do think Motley's experience has something to say to today.

    First of all, she was highly qualified, with vast experiences in the federal courts at the trial level, the appellate level, and the Supreme Court. She argued and won nine of 10 cases at the court.

    And yet, when she was nominated, there were those who said that her experience was too narrow, that she might not be able to handle the financial cases that came before the prestigious trial court in Manhattan. And so she had to run the gauntlet before she ultimately was seated on the court. And it's going to be the same for whoever is nominated by President Biden.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    For many, your book will be a first introduction to Constance Baker Motley.

    What do you hope readers take away from this biography and her incredible life, because many people are unaware of her contributions to the civil rights movement?

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin:

    I want to correct the historical record, adding Constance Baker Motley to the pantheon of great American leaders.

    I want readers to see the value of looking at the civil rights movement through the lens of gender and through the eyes of a woman because of enduring issues around gender equity today. And, finally, I want them to consider the imperfect fit between individual success and group advancement, whether it's Constance Baker Motley or Barack Obama or whoever is nominated by President Biden.

    Freedom is a constant struggle, and everyone has to contribute.

  • Nicole Ellis:

    Tomiko Brown-Nagin, thank you for joining us here at the "NewsHour."

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So important to see these stories being told.

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