Radcliffe Dean Discusses Book Celebrating Life of Civil Rights Lawyer Constance Baker Motley


The dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, discussed the launch of her new book at a virtual event hosted Friday evening.

Brown-Nagin’s book, “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” is a biography of Constance Baker Motley, a trailblazing attorney and judge during the civil rights movement. The book was released on Jan. 25.

The book details Motley’s career as an activist and a lawyer, highlighting her experiences as a Columbia Law School student, working under Thurgood Marshall, and becoming one of the most eminent civil rights lawyers of her time.

Brown-Nagin said Motley took on a wide range of roles as a Black female lawyer.


“‘Motley morphed from lawyer to therapist, a role she often played in high stakes civil rights cases,’” Brown-Nagin quoted from her book.

Brown-Nagin said Motley dedicated her life to the civil rights movement and advocacy for gender equality, as well as mentorship.

“One of the things that I really admired about her is that she was the first but she made sure that she was not the last,” Brown-Nagin said.

“She hired law clerks, who had graduated from Harvard and Columbia, other prestigious institutions, but were not getting looks from other judges. She hired them, and she inspired them,” Brown-Nagin added.

Brown-Nagin said Motley’s persistence allowed her to become a lawyer and judge despite coming from a working class, immigrant household in New Haven, Connecticut.

“She wasn't meant to be a lawyer,” Brown-Nagin said. “Her parents were West Indian. They didn't have money even to send her to college, much less to law school.”

Brown-Nagin also discussed how Motley attended Columbia Law School — a male-dominated institution at the time — with the financial support of New Haven philanthropist Clarence Blakeslee.

“There were very few women, but she made it through, and she ended up being one of the lawyers who helped to make civil rights law,” said Brown-Nagin.

Brown-Nagin said she was driven to write the book because she felt it was important to tell the story of Motley.

“I have to say I was just determined to get it done, because I believed in the project so much,” Brown-Nagin said. “I thought it was worth my time and my effort to just make sure that Constance Baker Motley is as widely known as she deserves to be.”

Motley was nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit as a successor to her mentor, Thurgood Marshall — a step that highlighted the recognition of civil rights activists at the time. Her alignment with the civil rights and prisoners’ rights movements as a Black female lawyer, however, proved to be a “double-edged sword,” according to Brown-Nagin: Motley was not selected for the role.

“Her identity was weaponized — to use a word that is tossed around today — against her,” Brown-Nagin said. “We need to ensure that that story about Motley is known and that that isn't replicated.”

Brown-Nagin also said Motley’s story is relevant given President Joe Biden’s recent pledge to nominate a Black woman to replace Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

“The [Biden] administration has to be prepared for the slings and arrows that will come, and they will come no matter how brilliant or how qualified the woman is, they will come and they need to be anticipated,” Brown-Nagin said. “I hope that telling Montley’s story will encourage people to do that.”