Community Book Read Launches With Biography of Constance Baker Motley ’46

Author Tomiko Brown-Nagin visits Columbia Law School to discuss her book Civil Rights Queen.

Book cover featuring photo of a woman

Constance Baker Motley ’46, the second Black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School, had a prodigious and trailblazing career. She was mentored by NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) founder Thurgood Marshall; cowrote briefs in Brown v. Board of Education; argued 10 civil rights cases before the Supreme Court; defended Martin Luther King Jr.’s right to march in Albany, Georgia; advocated for the admittance to the University of Mississippi of James Meredith ’68 when he was an undergraduate; and served as a New York state senator and the Manhattan borough president. One of the capstones of Motley’s career was being the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her in 1966 to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

But until last year, there had never been a full-scale biography of the quintessential Columbian. So when Columbia Law School Vice Dean for Intellectual Life Kathryn Judge, Harvey J. Goldschmid Professor of Law, and Olatunde C.A. Johnson, Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 Professor of Law, began discussing the concept of a Community Book Read, they agreed that the 2022 book Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality by Tomiko Brown-Nagin was the perfect book to launch the series.

On October 11, Brown-Nagin, a Harvard Law professor and the dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute, visited Columbia Law School to share insights into Motley’s life and discuss her process as a biographer. After introductory remarks by Judge and Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, Brown-Nagin fielded questions from a panel that included Johnson; Petal Modeste, associate dean for professional affairs administration; and Alice Park ’25, president of the Empowering Women of Color student organization. 

A panel of speakers in a classroom
(Left to right) Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Olatunde C.A. Johnson, Petal Modeste, and Alice Park ’25


Brown-Nagin explained that she got the idea to write Civil Rights Queen when she was working on a previous book, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement, and found there weren’t as many books and articles about Motley as there were on other key players in the civil rights movement. “Frankly, I knew that several of them had not quite achieved as much,” said Brown-Nagin. “And the key motivation here pertains to the question of why there was so little material on her, and I’m afraid it comes down to gender. It’s true of civil rights history just the same as it’s true of American history generally, and that is the folks who are lifted up as people of courage, people who deserve to be known and remembered, tend to be male.”

According to Brown-Nagin, Motley’s career is extraordinary, in part, because she affected social change by using her legal training in three distinct ways—as an impact litigator, a politician, and a judge. “[But] Constance Baker Motley would deserve a biography if she’d never been nominated to the judiciary,” said Brown-Nagin. “She was already a pathbreaker in these two other realms.”

Motley faced challenges and indignities, both large and small, every step of the way: as a lawyer traveling and practicing in the segregated South, as a politician with no prior experience, and as a judge whose decisions were scrutinized for possible bias because of her racial and gender identity. Even at the LDF, Motley had to contend with the sexism of the era. Marshall, who hired Motley, was “fascinated” by her, according to Brown-Nagin. “I’m sure many of you know, Thurgood Marshall was very charming. He was a storyteller. He had an informal kind of manner,” she said. “Now, I have to say that it wasn’t all fun, because Thurgood Marshall, I write in the book, like many men of the time, paid some attention to her looks and essentially took actions that would make us cringe today.” 

Woman in blazer in classroom
Tomiko Brown-Nagin at the Community Book Read.

Motley’s accomplishments, said Brown-Nagin, are remarkable by any standard: “It is more impressive what she was able to achieve given that she was fighting both gender and race discrimination.”

Motley also defied categorization. In the 1950s, when she started litigating civil rights cases, she was considered a radical, but “by the early 1960s, there were people who thought she was sort of conservative,” said Brown-Nagin. “She was thought to be sort of upper crust. She came from a household where, as immigrants from Nevis, her parents spoke with a British accent, so she spoke in a certain way. And, as I put in the book, whatever people conjure when they think about an authentic Black person, she wasn’t it.” Brown-Nagin explained that seeing Motley in this light “shows that Black identity is not monolithic, which is something else I’ve explored for some time in my work.”

As a judge, Motley was pragmatic rather than political. “She was judicious. She was careful. She was methodical,” said Brown-Nagin. “All things considered, she was pretty moderate. Now, I mean moderate for the Southern District of New York. I don’t mean moderate for the Southern District of Mississippi. ”

Brown-Nagin believes Motley is an enduring role model. “It is fascinating to see the world of law through her lens,” she said. “We’re living in a time, I believe, where we need inspiration, we need examples of people who experience setbacks, as she did, but she just kept going, and she kept going for us. And so when I feel down, I think, well, if Constance Baker Motley could keep going under her circumstances, surely I can, and we can, under our circumstances.”

After the program, student panelist Park reflected on the Community Book Read. “Reading about Constance Baker Motley’s career and impact as a civil rights lawyer reminded me of the power of the law to advance racial justice and pushed me to pursue this type of work,” she said. “I’m now externing at the Legal Defense Fund and am constantly inspired by Motley’s legacy, resilience, and commitment to justice. Motley paved the way for so many women and people of color, and I’m indebted to Dean Brown-Nagin for telling her story.”

The Community Book Read is part of the Lawyers, Community, and Impact Series. It was sponsored by the Office of Student Services, the Vice Dean for Intellectual Life, the Black Law Students AssociationEmpowering Women of Color, and the Columbia Law Women’s Association.

Painting of woman in black judicial robe

“I rejected any notion that my race or sex would bar my success in life.”—Constance Baker Motley ’46, in her autobiography Equal Justice Under Law (1998)


In the Shadow of Yale

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, to Anglophile immigrants from the island of Nevis in the West Indies, Motley grows up near the Yale University campus, where her father and many of her uncles work. She attends predominantly white schools but is fortunate to avoid experiencing overt racism, according to her autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law.


Yearning for More

At 15, she writes a poem titled “Listen Lord - From the Slums,” which expresses her despair at the unfairness of the world and hints at her resolve to move beyond her teenage circumstances. It reads in part:

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


Eyes on the Prize

As president of a council for Black youth in New Haven, Motley speaks out at a public meeting at the Dixwell Community House, which was built to be a haven for the Black community. She explains that Black residents don’t feel Dixwell is a place for them because it’s run by white men, including its major benefactor, New Haven philanthropist Clarence W. Blakeslee. Impressed by Motley’s speech, Blakeslee sets up a meeting with her. When he learns she cannot afford to attend college and wants to become a lawyer, he offers to help. “If that’s what you want to do, I’ll be happy to pay your way for as long as you want to go,” he tells her. “I am sending my grandson to Harvard Law School. I guess if I can send him to Harvard, I can send you to Columbia.”


Jim Crow

On the way to her freshman year at Fisk University, a historically Black university in Nashville, Tennessee, Motley experiences the indignities of Jim Crow for the first time. When her train from New York arrives in Cincinnati before crossing into Kentucky, she is forced to disembark and move to a dingier passenger car with a “Colored” sign inside. “Although I had known this would happen, I was both frightened and humiliated,” she later writes in her autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law. In 1942, she transfers to Washington Square College at New York University, where she majors in economics.


Columbia Connections

Motley enters Columbia Law School, where she establishes a lifelong friendship with Bella Abzug ’45, the social justice advocate and U.S. congresswoman. Motley’s professors include antitrust authority Milton Handler ’26, who drafted many significant laws during his career, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, which prohibited defense industries with government contracts from discriminating against qualified Black-owned businesses. While still a student, Motley begins working part time at LDF, where she is mentored by Robert Carter ’41 LL.M.


A Partner for Life

She marries Joel Motley, a real estate and insurance broker, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in New Haven.


Stepping Up to the Bar

LDF’s Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall accompanies Motley to Albany, New York, where she argues her first solo case before the state commissioner of education. She successfully proves that the public schools of Hempstead, New York, are segregated by the gerrymandering of school-district lines. Motley assists Carter (the No. 2 at LDF) in her first court case, Bates v. Batte, a class-action suit on behalf of Black schoolteachers in Mississippi who are paid less than their white counterparts. Motley and Carter are the first Black lawyers since Reconstruction to appear in a Mississippi courtroom, which was standing room only and “like a circus,” Motley later said.


Drafting a Game Plan

After the Supreme Court rules in Sweatt v. Painter that a Black man, Heman Marion Sweatt, has to be admitted to the University of Texas School of Law instead of an inferior “separate but equal” Black law school, Motley writes a model complaint that cites the facts and law detailing why segregation in public schools is unconstitutional, which is distributed to NAACP-affiliated counsel to use in other cases.


Starting a Family

At age 30, Motley gives birth to her son, Joel Motley III. To continue her career after a three-month maternity leave, she relies on live-in nannies/housekeepers throughout his childhood. When Joel is 13, the Hartford Courant publishes a story about Motley with the headline: “Work If You Can Pay the Maid, Says Woman Judge to Women.”


Historic Victory

Motley and her LDF colleagues work 12-hour days preparing for the first oral arguments in Brown v. Board of Education, contending that the principle of “separate but equal” as established in Plessy v. Ferguson must be overturned. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court rules unanimously that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional, but the LDF lawyers celebrate briefly because the court announces it will wait until the following term to formulate the decrees that will put the ruling into effect. 



Back to Court

When the Supreme Court asks for re-arguments in the Brown case, Motley is the only woman whose name is on the briefs. In May 1955, the justices issue a second opinion (known as Brown II), which remanded future desegregation cases to lower courts and school boards to proceed with following the law “with all deliberate speed.” But the court’s actions effectively open the door to local judicial and political evasion of desegregation, and Motley spends the next decade in state and federal courts fighting Southern states’ resistance to the Supreme Court order.


Georgia on My Mind

Motley joins two Georgia lawyers in filing a lawsuit on behalf of Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, who were denied admission to the University of Georgia because of its segregation policy. In January 1961, a federal district judge rules that they were rejected “solely because of their race and color” and orders their immediate admission to the university. A few days later, the judge stays his order, and Motley appeals successfully to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which is later affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.


Supreme Achievement

Motley argues her first case before the Supreme Court on behalf of Charles Clarence Hamilton, a Black man who was sentenced to death in Alabama after his conviction for breaking and entering a dwelling with “intent to ravish.” The court agrees with her that Hamilton was denied crucial legal counsel at his arraignment and overturns his conviction.

Motley is passed over to replace Thurgood Marshall as director-counsel of LDF when he becomes a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. She remains the organization’s No. 2, now reporting to her frequent co-counsel Jack Greenberg ’48.


A Battle to the End

James Meredith ’68 becomes the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi after a 16-month court battle led by Motley, which required the backing of the U.S. Justice Department, LDF, and President John F. Kennedy.


Witness to History

Motley sits on the platform when Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. “It was the twentieth century’s finest hour,” she wrote in her autobiography. Motley had gotten to know King only a year earlier when she visited him in a Georgia jail. “It was then that I realized we did indeed have a new civil rights leader—a man willing to die for our freedom,” she said.

Representing 10 Black students who were arrested for eating at a white lunch counter and violating a Birmingham, Alabama, ordinance that requires segregation in public eating places, Motley has their convictions reversed at the Supreme Court in Gober v. City of Birmingham.

Representing the Black residents of Memphis, Tennessee, at the Supreme Court in Watson v. City of Memphis, Motley argues that the city cannot prolong desegregating its recreational facilities over several years and must do so immediately. Motley prevails, and the city’s parks commission integrates parks and playgrounds—but it closes the city’s pools in protest.


Getting Elected

In 1964, Motley transitions to a new career as a politician, becoming the first Black woman to be elected to the New York State Senate, which is front-page news in The New York Times. She also argues three more sit-in cases at the Supreme Court.

Motley is then elected in 1965 by members of the New York City Council to fill the vacant Manhattan borough president role. The New York Times deems her “meteoric rise in politics,” noting she will have a $35,000-a-year salary. She steps away from LDF.

President Lyndon B. Johnson invites Motley, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, to the U.S. Capitol for the ceremonial signing of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.


Another First

The day after Motley is nominated by President Johnson to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, a photograph of them together at the White House appears on the front page of The New York Times. When she is confirmed by the Senate, Motley becomes the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge. (Only four other women, all white, had been appointed federal judges by 1966.)


Prisoners’ Rights

Motley rules that the constitutional rights of Martin Sostre, an inmate at Green Haven prison, were violated by prison officials keeping him in solitary confinement for a year because of his legal and Black Muslim activities while incarcerated. Though he remains in prison, she awards him unprecedented monetary damages.


No Excuses

In Blank v. Sullivan & Cromwell, Harriet Raab ’66 and the Employment Rights Project at Columbia Law sue the law firm for sex discrimination, and the case is assigned to Motley. Sullivan’s lawyer argues that Motley is biased and should recuse herself because she has experienced discrimination firsthand as a Black woman. Motley counters: “If background or sex or race of each judge were, by definition, sufficient grounds for removal, no judge on this court could hear this case.” The “Blank principle,” as it was known, along with other precedents, established that no party in a lawsuit can expect a judge to be without an identity or ideology.


A New Ballgame

At the 1977 World Series between the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke is prohibited from entering the teams’ locker rooms because she is a woman, denying her the opportunity to interview players after a game the way male reporters can. Ludtke sues Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The case is assigned to Motley, who rules in Ludtke’s favor, basing her order on Kuhn’s infringement of Ludtke’s constitutional equal protection and due process rights to perform her job as the men performed theirs. “After her ruling, girls realized they could perform jobs in sports media that previously had seemed out of reach,” said Ludtke.


An Open Book

Motley’s autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law, is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “In the next century, as in this one, private racism will decrease in direct proportion to the extent to which the status of African Americans as a whole is improved,” she wrote. “The white community must abandon its reluctance to talk about racism and squarely confront it in its homes, workplaces, and private lives.”


End of an Era

Motley dies in New York City of congestive heart failure. “She is going to be missed,” says her district court colleague Chief Judge Michael Mukasey. “She is a person of a kind and stature the likes of which they’re not making anymore.”


A Time of Scholarly Appraisal

In 2017, the Columbia Law Review hosts a symposium, “The Legacy of Constance Baker Motley: Education, Equality, and the Law in the United States Today.”

In 2022, Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality by Harvard legal historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin is published by Pantheon Books; it is the first major biography of the advocate and judge. “She’s far less known in the general public today than she deserves," Brown-Nagin says. "She was the counterpart to Thurgood Marshall, who was called Mr. Civil Rights.”


The Gold Standard

Senators and representatives introduce the Congressional Tribute to Constance Baker Motley Act of 2023, which would posthumously award her a Congressional Gold Medal

People stand on a stage on either side of a poster of Judge Constance Baker Motley

Stamp of Approval

On January 31, 2024, the U.S. Postal Service celebrates Motley who is the 47th honoree in the Black Heritage stamp series. Watch more.