‘Civil Rights Queen’, The Story of a Brave and Shining Pioneer

How do you measure progress? The incrementalist advises patience: Something is better than nothing, half a loaf is better than nothing.

In particular, Malcolm X doesn’t have any of that. During a televised roundtable in 1961, civil rights attorney Constance Baker Motley tried to convince Malcolm to admit that the average black American was “fundamentally better off than it was during the end of slavery. rules”. He despises the premise itself. “You now have 20 million blacks in America begging for some kind of recognition as human beings,” he said, referring to black Americans incarcerated at the time, “and whites… today’s average thinks we’re making progress. ”

It was an evocative exchange, one that Harvard legal historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin introduces to its effect in “Civil Rights Queen,” Motley’s first major biography. , after a decade of implementation. Brown-Nagin combined Motley’s efforts to find common ground by asking a series of solicitorial questions (“You realize that, don’t you…?” Don’t you think…? ) with words Malcolm’s scathing recidivism. By the mid-1960s, Motley was “bound,” Brown-Nagin writes. Working at NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., or Inc Fund, since 1946, she was a key figure in using the courts to overturn Jim Crow laws. Motley helped sue Brown against the Board of Education; She fought for Martin Luther King Jr.’s right to march. in Birmingham. But for progressives who disagree with the mainstream civil rights movement, she is “weak and adaptable,” writes Brown-Nagin. Set against the backdrop of characters like Malcolm, “her politics and style look more mature – and rightly so.”

Motley is not necessarily accepted wholeheartedly into the American power corridor. As Brown-Nagin shows in this thought-provoking biography, Motley is seen by everyone as “a pawn of the white establishment,” but is sometimes criticized by elements of that white establishment for not being enough. mild.

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the Southern District of New York, making her the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge. She constantly faces suspicions among those who claim that her identity will expose her to favoritism. During her confirmation hearings, she was accused of being a Communist – which is ironic, considering that as a judge, Motley would frequently enforce the property rights of her owners. business ownership. “In her courtroom,” writes Brown-Nagin, “no less than anywhere else, larger corporate organizations with more resources — big business — prevailed.”

Credit…Lincoln Rose

Federal Court in Lower Manhattan is a world away from Motley’s childhood in New Haven, Conn., where she was born, the ninth child of a 12-year-old family, to immigrant parents. Nevis Island in the Caribbean. Her father found a steady but humble job as a manager at Yale; Her mother is a housewife. Speaking at a community center, 19-year-old Motley impressed a local philanthropist so much that he paid for the rest of her education – first at Nashville’s Fisk University. , then New York University and finally at Columbia Law School.

Motley would recall her experiences as a Black girl in Connecticut, in stark contrast to what she saw later in the South. “Fear and racial strife were not part of the landscape,” she recalls. For his part, Brown-Nagin says Motley has clung to “one of the persistent but still controversial myths about Americans’ race relations” – that racism is primarily a problem in the South. South – and “downplayed the level of racism in the North”.

Brown-Nagin does this over and over again – providing a punctuated critique while retelling the story of a particular life she greatly admires. (Brown-Nagin’s earlier book, Bancroft-winning Courage Against Dissent, included a chapter on Motley.) It was a wise impulse that Motley, who wanted to be a attorney since she was a high school student, can be highly regarded – although it can be difficult to say, since “Civil Rights Queen” is not a profound biography. Brown-Nagin mainly focuses on Motley’s life in the courtroom, as both a lawyer and a judge, with only occasional glimpses into her personal life, which includes a happy marriage, support and a child, a son.

“Civil Rights Queen” is the result of diligent research; Brown-Nagin sifted through documents, pored over archives, talked to Motley’s secretary. We learn that when Motley interviewed Thurgood Marshall, who was then a special counsel for the Inc Fund, he asked her to climb a ladder next to a bookshelf because “he wanted to check on her feet and figure. her feminine form”.

Brown-Nagin puts the incident (“allegedly,” she noted carefully) in light of the chauvinism surrounding the time and Marshall’s reputation as a “Romeo”; The whole book offers a little different by way of gossip or Motley’s idiosyncrasies, beyond what Motley himself is willing to reveal in his memoirs. (Published in 1998, that memoir doesn’t mention any specifics about the job interview, only recalling Marshall’s “utter lack of formality”: “For whatever reason.” what, I don’t remember much anymore.” Brown-Nagin has repeatedly described Motley as “Dignified,” “serious,” “well-dressed” — as if her impeccable self-expression were a armor, which Brown-Nagin suggests is: “She protected herself; only a select few could be seen behind the mask.”

Some of the book’s most poignant passages recount the difficult experiences of Motley and her clients in the South – risking their lives with their unyielding efforts to lead the country to its stated ideals. Brown-Nagin made it clear that Motley, like other attorneys at Inc Fund, had to be ruthlessly pragmatic, holding clients to the politically strictest standards of respect at the time, the sort of thing. leave anyone who might endanger a case. But Motley also advises exhausted and scared clients to persevere, making sure all the hard work they’ve put in won’t be in vain.

The work is sometimes painful, and always difficult; it has transformed for the country and shaped for Motley. “Civil Rights Queen” is a balanced review of a brave and brilliant woman who helped reconfigure the system before she became part of it. Brown-Nagin concluded by remarking that, as a judge, Motley is not the “fighter” she used to be; she has offered a few “groundbreaking” opinions, but is primarily known for her fairness and conscientiousness. Reflecting on this “paradox of opportunity” for outsider to insider, Brown-Nagin honors his subject with a direct and non-sensical insistence – tough, if you will . “The power structure has not changed fundamentally,” she writes. “At best, it contains the difference.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/26/books/review-civil-rights-queen-constance-baker-motley-tomiko-brown-nagin.html ‘Civil Rights Queen’, The Story of a Brave and Shining Pioneer

Fry Electronics Team

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