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Often overlooked, civil rights advocate Constance Baker Motley gets her due

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today, we're going to hear about a woman whose biographer says belongs in the pantheon of great American leaders. And the lack of attention she's received is a form of historical malpractice. That woman is civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley. Her biographer, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, spoke with our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley. Tonya is a special contributor to NPR's Here & Now and host of the podcast Truth Be Told. Tomiko Brown-Nagin is a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. Her new book is called "Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley And The Struggle For Equality."

Here's Tonya.

TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: Tomiko, welcome to FRESH AIR.

TOMIKO BROWN-NAGIN: I'm delighted to be with you. Thanks for having me.

MOSLEY: There is a vivid recounting in the book that sets the grounding for Motley's reputation as the civil rights queen, and that's her first experience as a courtroom lawyer in Mississippi, which was the South's most repressive state back in 1949. What was she there litigating, and what reception did she receive?

BROWN-NAGIN: Motley was in Jackson, Miss., litigating a case on behalf of African American schoolteachers who were subjected to a pay disparity. And as she walked the streets of Jackson and entered the courtroom there, she caused a sensation. Few people had seen a woman lawyer or a Black lawyer. And here was this incredible combination of a Black woman lawyer. And people were just - some were excited. Some were - just didn't know what to make of her. And that is the story that I tell in my book about her impact both as a symbol, but also her substantive impact on the law.

MOSLEY: Motley saw while she was there the vestiges of slavery and the ills of segregation. That's how you put it in the book. She couldn't find lodging. She had to sleep in a rooming house for Black people. White grocery stores refused to sell food to her as she was litigating that case. How did that experience shape Motley's view of her role in this fight for civil rights?

BROWN-NAGIN: Well, the reality, Tonya, is that Motley experienced some of the same indignities as her client. And so even as she is working as a civil rights lawyer on behalf of a broader Black community, she is also working on her own behalf and on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers, many of whom were African American, who were seeking to kill Jim Crow.

MOSLEY: You write about how Motley's foundational upbringing was really important in understanding her perceptions of Mississippi and her work more broadly. Her parents migrated to the U.S. from Nevis, which is a small island in the Caribbean Sea, and raised Motley and her siblings in New Haven, Conn. You write that her father taught his children that they were superior to Black Americans. And, you know, this view of Black immigrants like Motley's father - the view that they had of Black Americans - we don't often speak openly about it. Can you describe it?

BROWN-NAGIN: We don't. And yet we should. It's an important part of American history, which illustrates, as I conclude in my book - it turns out that Caribbean immigrants are immigrants. And in this country, immigrants often seek to define themselves against African American. And that is exactly what happened in Baker Motley's family. Her father and her mother - her entire family were culturally conservative. They were happy to be a part of the British Empire. They thought of themselves as superior to African Americans, particularly those in the South, whom her father characterized as shiftless and as allowing themselves to be debased by Jim Crow. And what I conclude in the book is that either because of or in spite of her father's mischaracterizations of Blacks in the South, Motley became their champion.

MOSLEY: How did growing up in New Haven, Conn., more specifically, also impact Motley's perception of race?

BROWN-NAGIN: New Haven, Conn. was a town with many immigrants. Motley thus grew up in an integrated environment. She attended integrated schools in the shadow of Yale University, where virtually all of her male relatives worked, including her father, who worked for a number of the Yale eating clubs, including Skull and Bones at one point. And the family - the father in particular read himself into the privilege of his young, white, male charges, which is a reason that he could view himself as superior to African Americans. And Motley also told herself a story about how New Haven, New England was very, very different from the Deep South. And, of course, in many ways it was. But it's a matter of degree.

So as it happens, her father had been a cobbler on Nevis. But he was not able to get a job in New Haven in that position because it was one that was occupied by white ethnics, by Italians. And so there was employment discrimination in New Haven. There was an instance where Motley was turned away from a beach in the suburbs of New Haven because of her race. And so there were limitations, and yet it was vital to her family to downplay racism while they were acutely aware of their class position. And there's a way in which the sense of superiority and the story that she told herself about the different circumstances in which she had grown up were helpful to her. When she went to places like Jackson, Miss. and did experience profound racism, she was able to push through, in part because she had that protective armor that had been cultivated by her parents.

MOSLEY: I'm also really fascinated by the fact that Baker Motley grew up in the shadow of Yale University, as you said, her father working for several secret societies as a cook. And yet her lot as a woman during that time meant it wasn't exactly expected that she would even attend college.

BROWN-NAGIN: Absolutely not. In fact, when she told her parents and others in the community that she aspired to be a lawyer, they thought that she was crazy. It was a preposterous idea. They said women don't get anywhere in the law. And, of course, their perceptions were based in fact. And she also wanted to struggle for equality. She was an activist even in her youth, and thus she maintained her aspiration. She managed to attract financial support from a local philanthropist, and she thus was able to attend first Fisk and then NYU as an undergraduate. She graduated with a bachelor's in economics, and then she went to Columbia Law School.

MOSLEY: How did World War II ease Motley Baker's ability to fulfill this dream of attending undergrad and later law school?

BROWN-NAGIN: Sure. It's an important story. Well, Motley discusses in her autobiography how when she arrived at Columbia Law School, it was like a ghost town. Many of the men who would have been on campus were not there. They were on the war front. And that meant that Columbia, like many other institutions of higher education, were seeking others to fill those seats, and that is the context in which Constance Baker Motley, as well as people like Bella Abzug, found themselves at Columbia Law School during World War II.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute and Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. She's written a new book called "Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley And The Struggle For Equality." More after the break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and we're talking with Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who has written a new book called "Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley And The Struggle For Equality." Brown-Nagin is the dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute and Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School.

Let's talk a bit about a very important figure in Motley's life, and that's Thurgood Marshall. You write that her experience of applying for a job at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where Thurgood Marshall was head counsel, alleviated some pain for Baker Motley, the pain of rejection from other firms. What had she experienced before that fateful meeting?

BROWN-NAGIN: Right, when Motley went to an interview at a New York City law firm, she was turned away. Essentially, the door was closed in her face. The partners did not want to hire a Black woman. And, you know, the limitations on women's ability to enter legal practice based on gender are stories that could be told by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O'Connor and many others. And in the face of that rejection, when she went to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1945 and Thurgood Marshall was friendly to her and hired her on the spot, she was delighted. It was a dream job for her, and thus, she was always so grateful to Thurgood Marshall for giving her a chance. She said that if it had not been for Thurgood Marshall, no one ever would have heard of Constance Baker Motley. And certainly by hiring her, Motley was doing something that was unusual and incredibly progressive. Motley was, for most of her 20-year career at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the only woman lawyer, and that is why she was so grateful to Marshall all of her life.

MOSLEY: How did Justice Marshall view Motley Baker? What was their relationship like?

BROWN-NAGIN: They had great affection for one another and great respect for each other. I cite a line from an oral history interview in my book, where Marshall says that Connie just walked in and took over, which is an indication of both his respect and her high value to the Inc. fund, as the organization was called. At the same time, I cite a couple of episodes that do reveal that the relationship was not uncomplicated, and I will talk about the - what I call the setback of 1961, where she was not promoted to Thurgood Marshall's position when he himself left the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for the court, and Motley was disappointed. She thought that both race and gender factored into Marshall's decision. And then earlier, after she returned to New York from litigating her first trial in Mississippi - and recall that she had been fighting on behalf of Black schoolteachers who were subjected to a pay disparity - she actually confronted Marshall about a pay disparity in her own work. She thought that she neither had the title nor the salary that she deserved and was able to, through self-advocacy, get a raise.

MOSLEY: Taking us back, though, to the '40s and the '50s, if we could just set ourselves there, you write about Black female professionals facing extreme scrutiny, that duality of being a Black person, a woman and also a mother. That scrutiny of being a Black woman professional played out in a real way during the litigation of Brown v. Board of Education. It was around that time that Motley gave birth to her son. Can you tell us more about that?

BROWN-NAGIN: Sure. Well, I do foreground in my chapter on Brown v. Board of Education the reality that Motley became pregnant, gave birth to her son, Joel, and he experienced his infancy and toddlerhood at the same time that she was helping to write the complaint and then the briefs and do all of the work, including some grunt work, that went into this monumental victory in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, where the Supreme Court unanimously held that state-mandated racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. I highlight how she is balancing her family life and her work. You know, she's the only woman on that legal team. Those men obviously support her and respect her.

On the other hand, they are working really long hours. It's expected that the lawyers, during the period when they're preparing their briefs for the Supreme Court, are away from their families for days at a time. And, of course, Motley had a young child. And I write about how stressful it was for her to be in that position. And, of course, it remains the case that high-powered professionals and really anyone in the workforce who is a parent has to juggle the two.

And I thought it was important to not only talk about the lawyering work that Motley was doing in the - at that time, but also to situate her as a mother and as a spouse. And fortunately, I note she had a spouse who was very supportive of her, who co-parented. She had siblings, and she hired people to help with child care and with the upkeep of the household and was unafraid to say that she did.

MOSLEY: That was a very progressive way of handling the household, outsourcing everything from cleaning to cooking at a time when it was thought that that was a woman's role. You bring up her husband, Joel Motley Jr. He was not only a devoted husband; he supported her career in ways that were really rare during that time.

BROWN-NAGIN: That's right. They had a - what I call an egalitarian marriage well before that was a thing (laughter). You know, he supported her. He was a fan of her. He didn't compete with her, and he had his own career. He was a real estate broker in Harlem with his own firm, which gave him flexibility to support her. And it's just a great love story. They were together for over 50 years. And everyone that I spoke to counted Joel as a key factor in Motley's success. I also will add, though, that even as she credited her husband with supporting her career, Motley herself said, but he always made more than I did (laughter) in terms of his income. And she thought that his being the male breadwinner helped to even things out a little bit, which I also think is important to note.

MOSLEY: He worked in real estate, as you said. News articles said that he had graduated from law school, but you write the law school part was not true. What does that fabricated story tell us about maybe the gender role dynamics that were playing out during that time, essentially that her husband had to also be as important?

BROWN-NAGIN: Yeah, it is an interesting and, I think, revealing fact that - there was the assumption that he needed to be - likely to save face and to conform to expectations about men being important and more accomplished than their wives - to say that he had graduated from college and then from law school. And that was not the case. That fib actually sheds light on the way in which throughout her career, and particularly so when she was in politics, Motley was scrutinized. You know, journalists would ask her about her family. They wanted to know about him, about the son - essentially, what was going on in that household that she could be playing this commanding role in public life? And so that's the context in which that reality was created.

MOSLEY: How was she treated by the white lawyers and the people in the court?

BROWN-NAGIN: Well, I tell a number of stories, most of them in the context of her litigation in Mississippi about just how peculiar she was viewed and how disrespectfully she was treated by the white male lawyer who litigated the Mississippi case for the state when Motley was trying the James Meredith case. She realized after she extended her hand to shake his that her hand just stayed out there. He didn't want to shake her hand because he had been taught that Blacks were inferior. He refused to call her by her proper name, Mrs. Motley. He would refer to her as her or she and even one time called her Constance. She objected and said to the judge, he needs to not do that (laughter), essentially. And thereafter, he referred to her as the New York counsel 'cause he couldn't bring himself to call her by her right name.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley recorded with Tomiko Brown-Nagin, author of the new book "Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley And The Struggle For Equality." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "LIKE SONNY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Tomiko Brown-Nagin, author of the new book "Civil Rights Queen" about an important but under-recognized civil rights lawyer, Constance Baker Motley. She filed the original complaint in Brown v. the Board of Education, became the first Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court, was on Martin Luther King's legal team, was the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge and the first elected to the New York state Senate. But as a Black woman fighting for civil rights, she confronted both racism and sexism in the courtroom.

Biographer Tomiko Brown-Nagin is a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. She spoke with guest interviewer Tonya Mosley.

MOSLEY: Let's talk a bit about the desegregation of colleges and Motley's role in that effort. Through your book, we get a lens into some of the tactics used during that time to win these cases, and you write about a particular strategy that was used in the case involving two Black women who applied to attend the University of Alabama, Autherine Lucy and Polly Myers. Both were denied entry, but Lucy was a better victim to speak than Myers. Can you tell us that story?

BROWN-NAGIN: That's right. The problem with Polly Anne Myers, in the view of the University of Alabama, was that she had a defective character. And why was this argued? Well, because it turned out that she had become pregnant before she married, and this became a basis for arguing that she was a person of poor character, of loose morals. And, of course, this occurred in the context of a moment in American history where women who had children, quote, "out of wedlock" were thought, in fact, to be of lower character.

And the story that I tell is about how the NAACP Legal Defense Fund went along with this. They dropped Polly Anne Myer when her character was put into issue by the university. And I note that nevertheless, this is unexpected of the lawyers for two reasons. First of all, Constance Baker Motley believed in the politics of respectability. So she would have shared a concern about how one presented oneself to the world, and she would have believed in cultural conservatism. At the same time, these civil rights lawyers believed that they needed to have the very best plaintiffs - the smartest, you know, well-dressed, from good families - so that they didn't have to contend with character issues. And so they made a decision that is entirely understandable and yet one that was problematic for Polly Anne Myer, who really had been a driver of that effort to desegregate the University of Alabama. And I use the story to show how complicated these civil rights cases were for the plaintiffs who came under scrutiny themselves in ways that were hurtful.

MOSLEY: You write that conformity, more broadly within the civil rights movement, became sort of resistance - an act of resistance. This is fascinating because I don't know if I've ever heard it explained this way.

BROWN-NAGIN: Sure. Let me talk about the University of Georgia case, which is a case where Motley thought she had the best plaintiffs ever. And those plaintiffs were Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the journalist. And Hamilton Holmes was a physician. They were both what you might call all-American people from great families and very smart and good-looking to boot. And Motley thought that they were a picture of middle-class respectability, of Black success and thus deserving of admission to the University of Georgia. How could you turn them down? Resistance because it revealed to the world that if Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes could be rejected from the University of Georgia, then obviously there was something amiss. And so that is the context in which one could see the politics of respectability as a form of self-protection and even as a form of resistance and a basis for demanding access to society on equal terms.

MOSLEY: I want to step back a little bit and talk about Motley's motivation. Essentially, she used the legal tools that were used to oppress Black people to essentially liberate them. Did she see it that way? What has she said about her motivation to endure so much within what was, at the time, a white, male profession?

BROWN-NAGIN: Well, she was a woman on a mission, and she understood her history-making turn as a lawyer, and it allowed her to persevere when she did experience the indignities of not being able to find adequate food or a place to stay or even having her life be under threat, as it was when she traveled to states like Alabama.

During the University of Alabama case, there were men stationed outside of a home where she was living to protect her - men with guns - because that is what was required. And that is an indication of how much hostility there was. When she was litigating the University of Mississippi case on behalf of James Meredith - she called the case the last battle of the Civil War - her life, again, was under threat. In fact, she was working alongside Medgar Evers, who was assassinated just after she left the state of Mississippi, having been victorious in the James Meredith case.

MOSLEY: You mention Medgar Evers, an NAACP civil rights activist and voting rights activist in Mississippi. She was close with him. What did you learn about the toll that this early work had on her, both physically and emotionally?

BROWN-NAGIN: Well, she was close to Medgar Evers. He was her constant companion when she was litigating the Ole Miss case. She would be driven by him to the federal courthouse in Jackson every time she had to go. He invited her to his home where she could enjoy home-cooked meals, and she could have fellowship with his wife Myrlie and their children and whoever else might drop by the house. And she noticed - she had a sense of being unsafe when she was there in the house and even noticed that there were bushes close to the home, where she thought they could be a hiding place for someone who wanted to do them harm. And that is what ended up happening. Medgar Evers was assassinated. And she was devastated. She couldn't get out of bed for weeks. She couldn't even bring herself to attend his funeral. In a word, she was depressed after that. It was a low point in her life. And yet, she did emerge victorious from the state of Mississippi as one of the most respected lawyers in America after that battle.

MOSLEY: What was the process of you finding out that information? I'm just thinking about how discussions around mental health and depression were not things that folks talked about back then or even exhibited outwardly. And Motley, as someone who had to present in a way to keep her standing in power in this male-dominated space, what were the ways that she navigated that?

BROWN-NAGIN: Well, there were little bits that she threw into interviews, to her autobiography, which is mostly just a recounting of legal cases and principles. But there are a few personal things in there that I found. And the reality is that the lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, sometimes were beleaguered by the work. Martin Luther King Jr., whom Motley also represented, would be torn and have conflicts over tactics and be uncertain of themselves. And I thought it was very important to include this information in my work on Motley. And I also refer to the struggles of other figures in the civil rights movement because it's important to appreciate that even these heroic figures were, after all, human. You know, James Meredith, at several points, tried to essentially back out of the mission that he was on to desegregate the University of Mississippi because it was just so hard. It took a toll on him, on his family. I refer to it as a kind of trauma of the activism that both Meredith and Motley and so many other people experienced. And it enrichens, I think, the story of the civil rights movement, of our heroes when we know that they were human, after all.

MOSLEY: I can't even begin to imagine how devastating it was for Motley to realize that the bushes that she warned Medgar Evers about were actually used by the gunman as a hiding place. How did you hear about that?

BROWN-NAGIN: She writes about that in her autobiography. As I said, that work is mostly a recounting, a pretty dry recounting, I should say - although, very helpful - of legal developments. But there are some places in that book where she reveals herself. And that is one of them, those bushes. And imagine just how devastating it would have been for her - and it was - to know that her - she essentially had a premonition, you might say, of what might happen there. And Medgar Evers was her friend. And it was just a very hard time for her.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute and Daniel P.S. Paul professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. She's written a new book called "Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley And The Struggle For Equality."

More after the break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "SKYLARK")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And we're talking with Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who has written a new book called "Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley And The Struggle For Equality."

We are about to live through another confirmation process of a Supreme Court justice. And when Baker Motley was being confirmed to be a federal judge, she had to paint herself not as political, that she could be impartial. You mention this. Can you talk about if she had to downplay her important civil rights work, and that also Motley pushed back a little bit? All people have backgrounds and perspectives, not just Black women.

BROWN-NAGIN: That's right. When she was nominated to the bench by President Johnson, there were those who said that her practice experience, which was extensive, nevertheless was narrow, too narrow because her accomplishments occurred in the field of civil rights. There were those, including the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, who claimed that she was a communist. This was just a pretext for opposing this woman who had brought down segregation at his alma mater, Ole Miss. There was the ABA, the bar association, that rated her qualified instead of highly qualified, again, pointing to her experience as a civil rights lawyer. Yes, it was extensive. But she had not practiced in the state of New York, the federal trial court there.

And, yes, there was a need for her to push back, as she did and as her supporters did, and say that she's highly qualified for this position. She had many people in the civil rights movement support her, federal judges before whom she had argued. So she was able to attain that appointment. But that issue followed her onto the court where, in the context of a sex discrimination case, a lawyer for a law firm that was being sued by women law graduates, claiming discrimination in hiring and promotion, asked Motley to recuse herself from the case - so to step down from the case - saying that as a Black woman, she likely had experienced discrimination, and because of that, she could not be fair to a litigant in a sex discrimination case.

Motley rejected that plea and wrote an opinion that remains relevant and has been cited time and time again, saying that if background or experience were a basis for a judge to step down from a case, then no judge could hear that sex discrimination case or any others. In other words, identity alone is not enough to claim that a judge is biased. And that decision has been cited in instances where judges were asked to step down on the basis of their religion or their gender or their race or sexual orientation. And thus, it's one that I discuss quite a bit in my book.

MOSLEY: I want to go back to that disappointment of not being appointed by Thurgood Marshall to be his successor as chief counsel and what that might have laid the groundwork for. Motley was on a shortlist to be nominated to sit on the Supreme Court, and you've said that President Biden's announcement that he'd nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court - that could have happened 50 years ago. Did Motley ever express anger or regrets about this or how she was treated during this era?

BROWN-NAGIN: So there are two parts to the story. First, Lyndon Johnson initially wanted to appoint Constance Baker Motley to the U.S. Court of Appeals, to the 2nd Circuit. And there was tremendous pushback against this idea. She said, a woman was not wanted on the 2nd Circuit and barely wanted on the federal trial court, and she was disappointed in that. She says that Thurgood Marshall was disappointed that she did not receive the appointment to the higher court. And yet, she went onto the Federal District Court, and her name was reported in the media as being on shortlist for the Supreme Court.

It didn't work out for a number of reasons, including because being the civil rights queen was a double-edged sword. People would say that she couldn't be fair to litigants in discrimination cases. There were actually recusal motions made on this basis. And so she was not happy with any of that. I would not say that she was angry. That wasn't the way she made her way through the world, but she was disappointed. And yet, she would be so pleased, I'm sure, in this moment where a list of African American women is out there, and several of them are eminently qualified. And I'm pleased that we're at this moment. It's been a long time coming.

MOSLEY: Tomiko Brown-Nagin, thank you so much for this book. And thank you for joining us.

BROWN-NAGIN: Thank you. It's been delightful to talk to you about it.

GROSS: Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the author of "Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley And The Struggle For Equality." She spoke with guest interviewer Tonya Mosley, who's a special correspondent for the NPR show Here & Now and host of the podcast Truth Be Told.

After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new series "Severance," starring Adam Scott as an office worker who tries to separate his work life from his personal life by undergoing a procedure to sever those two sets of memories. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARK TERRY'S "IMPULSIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
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