AuthorMurray, Melissa

CIVIL RIGHTS QUEEN: CONSTANCE BAKER MOTLEY AND THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY. By Tomiko Brown-Nagin. New York: Pantheon. 2022. Pp. 2, 497. Cloth, $30; paper, $19.


On February 25, 2022, President Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to the Supreme Court. (1) From the start, many hailed Judge Jackson's nomination as history-making--if confirmed, she would be the first Black woman to sit on the high court. (2) As she stepped to the podium to accept the nomination, Judge Jackson made familiar gestures: she praised her husband, Patrick, "for being my rock today and every day for these past 26 years." (3) And, like Justices O'Connor, Ginsburg, and Barrett before her, (4) she spoke of her children, daughters Talia and Leila, assuring them that despite her elevation to the highest court in the land, "I will still be your mom." (5) Having issued the expected familial acknowledgements, Judge Jackson then thanked her mentors, including the federal judges for whom she had clerked and the justice whose seat she had been tapped to fill. (6)

At this point, viewers might have expected Judge Jackson to nod to another history-making member of the Supreme Court: Justice Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 became the first African American on the high court. (7) But Judge Jackson chose another Black jurist--one who, like Justice Marshall, had been a pathbreaking figure, but whose legacy in life and law had been somewhat neglected. As Judge Jackson explained, she "share[d] a birthday with the first Black woman ever to be appointed as a federal judge: the Honorable Constance Baker Motley." (8) Accepting the nomination for a position to which Motley had once aspired but had never achieved, (9) Judge Jackson praised her predecessor for her "steadfast and courageous commitment to equal justice under law." (10)

This invocation of Judge Constance Baker Motley was, for many Americans, an introduction to the trailblazing litigator, politician, and jurist. Although Motley had worked alongside Thurgood Marshall as part of the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund's civil rights litigation team and was the first Black woman appointed to the federal bench, her legacy in the law has been more muted than that of her celebrated colleague. (11)

Until now. Fortuitously, Judge Jackson's nomination--and her invocation of Judge Motley--coincided with the publication of Tomiko Brown-Nagin's Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality, (12) a biography of Motley and her life in the law. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, Civil Rights Queen traces Motley's improbable rise from a working-class immigrant family in New Haven, Connecticut to professional prominence as a civil rights litigator, state senator, and federal judge.

In Brown-Nagin's deft hands, Motley's journey has all of the trappings of a modern-day Horatio Alger story--a compelling heroine blessed with intelligence and pluck upon whom serendipity smiles, allowing her to scale improbable professional and social heights. But Brown-Nagin also illuminates a less glamorous story, of how Motley managed to combine the traditional feminine roles of wife and mother with a high-flying career in the law. It is an important intervention--one that makes clear both how much and how little social expectations around motherhood impacted Motley's career trajectory, as well as how much external assistance and scaffolding was required to allow Motley to successfully combine work and family. It also reveals the degree to which our understanding of the civil rights movement--and the charismatic male leaders who fronted it--has been starved for an account of how the struggle for racial justice was built on the unpaid, and often unsung, labor of the wives and mothers of the movement.

But beyond providing a more holistic account of what it means to fight for civil rights, Civil Rights Queen highlights the complicated legacy of working Black mothers and the difficult choices they have always made in combining family responsibilities with professional achievement. Brown-Nagin's depiction of Motley's unorthodox choices comes at a time when so many women--and Black women, in particular--have been stripped of agency to make decisions that profoundly impact work and family life.

This Review proceeds in three parts. Part I discusses Civil Rights Queen, focusing on the double bind that shadowed Motley's professional life. Race and gender shaped Motley's career trajectory, and Motley's role as a civil rights litigator shaped impressions of her within the civil rights movement and, later, within the federal judiciary.

Part II then focuses on Brown-Nagin's choice to foreground Motley's efforts to balance her responsibilities as a wife and mother alongside her trailblazing legal career. In balancing work and family, Motley defied the conventional notion that a woman's universe was cabined to the domestic sphere. Still, Motley hewed to some conventions, delegating household work to other female family members and paid caregivers, rather than disrupting gender norms around family work altogether. With this in mind, Part II examines the disparate aspects of Motley's experience of motherhood. On one hand, her household arrangements reflected core aspects of Black motherhood--reliance on "other mothers" and fictive kin and the creation of a "networked family" as a means of discharging family responsibilities. But interestingly, her delegation of household work to other women reflected durable gender roles within the family. In this regard, Motley's disruption of gender norms was uneven, perhaps reflecting the prioritization of certain gender norms in the Black family and community. Recognizing the inconsistencies in Motley's experience is an important corrective to a public discourse that frets about work-family balance (13) but rarely views working motherhood through the lens of race.

The light Brown-Nagin sheds on one experience of Black motherhood is especially welcome at a time when many legal decisionmakers have overlooked the experiences of Black mothers. Accordingly, Part III pivots to reflect more broadly on the law's treatment of motherhood--and the role of Black mothers in shaping and articulating the law. Focusing on the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, (14) this Part notes the decision's impact on the reproductive landscape and on Black women. Although the Court is utterly silent as to Black women's experience of pregnancy and motherhood, Black women have been particularly affected by the changing landscape of constitutional rights. The Review briefly concludes by considering some of the themes of Civil Rights Queen in the context of the current Court and its engagement with motherhood and women's rights.


    Constance Baker Motley's role in the tortured struggle for a more perfect union has often been eclipsed by her more storied male contemporaries and colleagues: leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, and Medgar Evers. (15) In Civil Rights Queen, Brown-Nagin claims space for Motley within this firmament of civil rights icons. One of the most respected historians of the civil rights movement, Brown-Nagin first detailed Motley's historic career, and her important role in desegregating Atlanta's schools, in a chapter of Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement. (16) " [A]stounded by how little attention" Motley received in other accounts of the civil rights movement, Brown-Nagin vowed to correct "historical malpractice" and provide "a more accurate and complete history" (p. 11)--one that included the exploits of the woman once dubbed "the Civil Rights Queen" (p. 5).

    On this front, Brown-Nagin succeeds magnificently. Civil Rights Queen is a meticulously researched and elegantly written account of Motley's legal career. It charts Motley's improbable rise from New Haven, Connecticut, where she grew up in the ivied shadow of Yale University; to New York University and Columbia Law School; to the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund (LDF), the Manhattan borough presidency, and a federal judgeship. Especially deserving of excavation are Motley's many legal victories as a pioneering civil rights litigator in the South. The legal challenges that propelled James Meredith, Autherine Lucy, Hamilton Holmes, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault to the front pages of national newspapers are not unknown, but Brown-Nagin brings them to life as personal histories underlaid with a sense of deep purpose and urgency. And at the center of these narratives is Motley, the master tactician, advocate, and occasional therapist who steered her charges through the rocky shoals of Southern resistance to integrating the flagship public universities that were at once bastions of white privilege and a critical toehold for professional achievement and upward mobility.

    This Part details Civil Rights Queen but does not do so exhaustively. Instead, it highlights certain aspects of Brown-Nagin's narrative that are especially noteworthy and add to our understanding of Motley and the social and legal milieu that she inhabited. Specifically, the Sections that follow consider the impact of race and gender on Motley's career, Motley's reluctance to embrace mainstream feminism, and the contradictions of her status as both a disrupter and an institutionalist.

    1. The Double Bind of Race and Gender

      In documenting Motley's career, Brown-Nagin is careful to underscore the binds that influenced Motley's professional exploits--chief among them race and gender. If the prospect of a Black lawyer was noteworthy (and it was), then the fact of a Black woman lawyer was even more unorthodox. And Motley and her colleagues at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund were not above exploiting this novelty to their advantage. Recognizing that the South's...

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