Born to an aspirational blue-collar family during the Great Depression, Constance Baker Motley was expected to find herself a good career as a hair dresser. Instead, she became the first black woman to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court, the first of ten she would eventually argue. The only black woman member in the legal team at the NAACP's Inc. Fund at the time, she defended Martin Luther King in Birmingham, helped to argue in Brown vs. The Board of Education, and played a critical role in vanquishing Jim Crow laws throughout the South. She was the first black woman elected to the state Senate in New York, the first woman elected Manhattan Borough President, and the first black woman appointed to the federal judiciary.
in 1961, the civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley tried to coax Malcolm X into acknowledging that the average Black American 'is substantially better off than he was at the end of slavery.' He scorned the very premise ... It’s an evocative exchange, one that the Harvard legal historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin showcases to illuminating effect in Civil Rights Queen ... [A] thoughtful biography ... Brown-Nagin does this now and again — providing an intermittent critique while recounting the story of an exceptional life that she manifestly admire ... Civil Rights Queen isn’t quite an intimate biography. Brown-Nagin focuses mainly on Motley’s life in the courtroom ... Civil Rights Queen is the result of diligent research ... The book as a whole offers little else by way of gossip or Motley’s own idiosyncrasies, beyond what Motley herself was willing to reveal in her memoir ... Some of the most poignant episodes in the book recount the harrowing experiences of Motley and her clients in the South — risking their lives in their persistent efforts to make the country measure up to its stated ideals ... Civil Rights Queen is a balanced assessment of a brave and brilliant woman who helped to reconfigure the system before she became a part of it.
... a fresh consideration of the civil rights movement and the nature of its achievements ... Brown-Nagin vividly captures how the seasoned legal team pushed to enforce the ruling in the face of mobs, defiant White officials and a distant federal government ... Brown-Nagin’s rich narrative highlights the major cases and rulings that marked these years and define [Baker's] legacy ... The story of Motley and the broader civil rights struggle, beyond a tally of victories and defeats, has much to teach us about the creativity, dedication, faith and boldness that keep the light burning.
[A] meticulously researched, fascinating biography ... Brown-Nagin excels at packing in intriguing minute details while still making them easily understood, as well as at contextualizing each scene historically ... While Motley’s storied career is precisely explored, readers may still feel at arm’s length from the woman herself. This may be due to the fact that Motley was a notably reserved woman, although by all accounts warm and engaging ... the unforgettable story of a legal pioneer who changed the course of history, superbly elucidated by Brown-Nagin.