Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality

Pantheon. Jan. 2022. 512p. ISBN 9781524747183. $30. BIOG
Brown-Nagin (history and constitutional law, Harvard Univ.; Courage To Dissent) writes the first major biography of Constance Baker Motley (1921–2005), a key figure in the civil rights movement and the dismantling of Jim Crow. Brown-Nagin’s well-written account places an often-overlooked figure in the context of history and argues that Motley should be remembered as one of the principal strategists of the civil rights movement and for her legal defense of Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders, and the Birmingham Children Marchers when she was a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP. Motley later became a New York State senator, the Manhattan Borough president, and the country’s first Black woman federal judge. Brown-Nagin also reveals Motley’s influence on gender discrimination law: she was the presiding judge over Blank v. Sullivan & Cromwell, in which women lawyers accused a law firm of discrimination; later Motley advocated for other lawyers who had experienced workplace gender discrimination.
VERDICT Brown-Nagin’s biography not only shines a light on a forgotten civil rights pioneer but also asks insightful questions about the relationship of power, gender, and social justice. This is an important addition to any collection on law, social justice, or the civil rights movement.
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