February Book Review: Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality by Tomiko Brown-Nagin

In one of my favorite books, Devil in the Grove, Gilbert King tells the story of Thurgood Marshall and his descent into the deep south to defend four young men falsely accused of rape in 1949. Pitted against Sheriff Willis McCall and the Ku Klux Klan, Marshall stood boldly in their defense, despite very real threats to his life. I cannot even imagine the courage it would have taken to make that stand. In my mind, Thurgood Marshall stands as a true hero (see my brief review of Devil in the Grove here). 

In 1946, after graduating from Columbia University, Constance Baker Motley joined the NAACP legal defense fund and assisted Thurgood Marshall as a key figure in the fight for civil rights. Later identified as the “Civil Rights Queen,” Constance Baker Motley was instrumental in arguing the most important cases of school desegregation. Her journeys took her deep into the south where she was threatened not only for her race, but for her gender. At a time when so few women played such a critical role in the fight against Jim Crow, I’m convinced her courage rivaled that of Thurgood Marshall. 

Born of immigrant parents from the Caribean island of Nevis, Constance grew up in the poor parts of New Haven, Connecticut. As a teenager she penned the following poem:


Listen Lord – From the Slums

Someone told me that a God made the world

And everything from stone to wood.

And when he had finished it

He said that it was good.

He worked on it six long days

On the seventh he rested content.

But I have often wondered

If this is the place he meant.

Man made the slums where I live

With its mountains of sin.

They jam the houses together

To keep beauty from entering in.

I often think that it is true

That real things have never been seen.

Cause I’ve lived here all my life 

And never saw grass that was green.

I don’t think God made my world

Cause it’s misery not fun.

If he made a beautiful place

This couldn’t be the one.

Yet someone said that there is a place 

Where the sun shines bright all day.

And that beautiful trees and flowers

Have been planted along the way.

My days are dark and dreary

Yet I often wish I could,

See with my own eyes

The world that God called good.

When I see God I’ll tell him

That it’s the sin which man has hurled,

Upon his beautiful earth

Which has devastated the world

No longer am I sad

For someday when my eyes close for good

I’ll see, in glory, 

The world, the way I should.


What followed in Motley’s life was a constant effort to make that world a better place for her brothers and sisters. Rather than waiting for change, she fought to bring light to the world. She lives up to Joseph Campbell’s definition of a hero, “one who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” I’m happy to add her to my list of my personal heroes.

In her time as a civil rights attorney, she was the first black woman to argue before the Supreme Court. She argued ten cases and won nine. She drafted Brown vs. Board of Education. She defended Martin Luther King and the freedom riders in Alabama. She was the lead attorney in successfully arguing the case against segregation at the University of Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Ole Miss (considered to be the most difficult challenge to racial division). Despite countless indignities directed at her by opposing counsel and judges, her calm and professional demeanor led to courtroom successes that few could have imagined.

After a brief stop in politics, Motley became the first black woman elevated to the federal bench where she served for twenty years. While serving on the New York District Court, she sought to uphold constitutional rights, yet she was viewed as fair and upright by those who argued in her courthouse. She upheld the rights of prisoners and fought against the rising tide of mass incarceration. Motley even ruled that female reporters had the right to enter the locker rooms of professional sports teams.

She left a legacy of hard work, dedication, and commitment to a cause she felt was greater than herself. I have no doubt that the day…”she closed her eyes for good, she saw, in glory, the world, the way she should.”

(Check out this NPR interview with Dr. Brown-Nagin where she argues why Motley deserves greater credit as a civil rights leader.)

If you were asked to identify the key figures of the civil rights movement, who would you come up with off the top of your head? 

Before I started my reading of history, I really could only come up with Martin Luther King. I then added Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, Thurgood Marshall, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. I’m grateful to add Constance Baker Motley to my short list. I hope she’ll make it onto to yours!

In 1966, activist Bella Abzug said to Constance Baker Motley, “Being a first is both an honor and a burden.” Motley truly lived a life of firsts, which she handled with integrity and grace.