The dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, discussed the launch of her new book during a virtual event on Friday evening.
Brown-Nagin’s book, “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” is a biography of Constance Baker Motley, a pioneer lawyer and judge in the civil rights movement. The book was released on January 25.
The book details Motley’s career as an activist and lawyer, highlighting her experiences as a student at Columbia Law School, working under Thurgood Marshall, and becoming one of the most prominent civil rights lawyers of her time.
Brown-Nagin said Motley took on a wide range of roles as a black lawyer.
“‘Motley went from lawyer to therapist, a role she often played in high-stakes civil rights cases,'” Brown-Nagin quoted in her book.
Brown-Nagin said Motley has dedicated her life to the civil rights movement and advocacy for gender equality, as well as mentorship.
“One of the things I really admired about her was that she was first, but she made sure she wasn’t last,” Brown-Nagin said.
“She hired paralegals, graduates of Harvard and Columbia, other prestigious institutions, but who were not looked at by other judges. She hired them and she inspired them,” Brown-Nagin added.
Brown-Nagin said Motley’s perseverance allowed her to become a lawyer and judge when she came from a working-class immigrant home in New Haven, Connecticut.
“She wasn’t supposed to be a lawyer,” Brown-Nagin said. “His parents were West Indian. They didn’t even have the money to send him to college, let alone law school.
Brown-Nagin also explained how Motley attended Columbia Law School — a male-dominated institution at the time — with financial support from New Haven philanthropist Clarence Blakeslee.
“There were very few women, but she pulled through and she ended up being one of the lawyers who helped make civil rights laws,” Brown-Nagin said.
Brown-Nagin said she was driven to write the book because she felt it was important to tell Motley’s story.
“I have to say, I was just determined to do it, because I believed in the project so much,” Brown-Nagin said. “I thought it was worth my time and effort to make sure Constance Baker Motley was as widely known as she deserved.”
Motley was nominated to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit as the successor to her mentor, Thurgood Marshall – a step that highlighted the recognition of civil rights activists at the time. Her alignment with the civil rights and prisoners’ rights movements as a black lawyer, however, proved to be a “double-edged sword”, according to Brown-Nagin: Motley was not selected for the role.
“Her identity was weaponized — to use a word that’s used today — against her,” Brown-Nagin said. “We need to make sure this story about Motley is known and it doesn’t happen again.”
Brown-Nagin also said Motley’s story was relevant given President Joe Biden’s recent promise to appoint a black woman to replace Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
“The [Biden] The administration must be prepared for the slingshots and arrows that will come, and they will come no matter how bright or skilled the woman is, they will come and they must be anticipated,” Brown-Nagin said. “I hope telling Montley’s story will encourage people to do so.”