How do you measure progress? The incrementalist recommends patience: something is better than nothing, half a loaf of bread is better than nothing.
Typically, Malcolm X had none of that. In a televised roundtable in 1961, civil rights attorney Constance Baker tried to persuade Motley Malcolm to admit that the average black American is “significantly better off than he was at the end of slavery.” He despised the premise. “Now you have 20 million black people in America begging for some sort of recognition as human beings,” he said, referring to the black Americans who were imprisoned at the time, “and the average white man today thinks we’re making progress.”
It’s an evocative exchange, one that Harvard legal historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin shows with illuminating effect in “Civil Rights Queen,” Motley’s first major biography, a decade in the making. Brown-Nagin juxtaposes Motley’s efforts to find common ground with Malcolm’s scathing retorts by asking a series of legal questions (“You recognize it, don’t you…? “Don’t you think…?”). By the mid-1960s, Motley was “under the spell,” Brown-Nagin writes. She had worked with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., or Inc Fund, since 1946, and was a pivotal figure in using the courts to dismantle Jim Crow laws. Motley had helped litigate Brown v. Board of Education; she fought for Martin Luther King Jr.’s right to march in Birmingham. But to radicals disenchanted with the mainstream civil rights movement, it was “weak and accommodating,” Brown-Nagin writes. Compared to figures like Malcolm, “her politics and style looked tamer — and they were.”
Nor that Motley was necessarily wholeheartedly accepted in the corridors of American power. As Brown-Nagin shows in this thoughtful biography, Motley was labeled “a pawn of the white establishment” on one side, but she was sometimes criticized by elements of that white establishment for not being moderate enough.
In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the Southern District of New York, making her the first black woman to serve as a federal judge. She was constantly confronted with doubts from those who assumed her identity would make her biased. During her hearings, she was accused of being a communist — which was ironic, given that as a judge, Motley would regularly uphold the property rights of business owners. “In her courtroom,” Brown-Nagin writes, “no less than in other larger companies with more resources — big business — prevailed.”
The federal courthouse in lower Manhattan was a world away from Motley’s childhood in New Haven, Conn., where she was born the ninth child of 12, to parents who had immigrated from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Surely her father had found a humble job as a steward at Yale; her mother was a housewife. Speaking at a community center, 19-year-old Motley made such an impression on a local philanthropist that he paid for the rest of her education—first at Fisk University in Nashville, then New York University, and finally Columbia Law School.
Motley would recall her experiences as a black girl in Connecticut, in stark contrast to what she saw later in the South. “Fear and racial conflict just weren’t part of the landscape,” she recalls. Brown-Nagin, for her part, says Motley clung to “one of the persistent but long-disputed myths about American race relations” — that racism was primarily a Southern problem — and “downplayed the magnitude of racism in the North. “
Brown-Nagin does this every now and then – with periodic critique as she tells the story of an extraordinary life that she clearly admires. (Brown-Nagin’s previous book, the Bancroft Prize-winning “Courage to Dissent,” included a chapter on Motley.) It’s a sensible impulse that Motley, who wanted to be a lawyer since high school, might would have appreciated – although it may be hard to say, as “Civil Rights Queen” isn’t exactly an intimate biography. Brown-Nagin focuses primarily on Motley’s life in the courtroom, as a lawyer and judge, with only occasional glimpses at her personal life, including a happy, supportive marriage and one child, a son.
“Civil Rights Queen” is the result of diligent research; Brown-Nagin flipped through the literature, flipped through the archives, and spoke to Motley’s clerks. We learn that when Motley interviewed Thurgood Marshall, who was then special counsel for the Inc Fund, he asked her to climb a ladder next to a bookshelf because “he wanted to inspect her legs and feminine form.”
Brown-Nagin situates this incident (“alleged,” she notes) in terms of the ambient chauvinism of the time and Marshall’s reputation as a “Romeo”; the book as a whole offers little else, in the form of gossip or Motley’s own idiosyncrasies, than what Motley herself was willing to reveal in her memoirs. (Published in 1998, that memoir doesn’t go into details about the interview, recalling only Marshall’s “total lack of formality”: “For whatever reason, I don’t remember much else.”) Brown-Nagin repeatedly describes Motley as “stately “, “steel”, “dressed stylishly” — as if her impeccable self-presentation were some form of armour, which Brown-Nagin suggests it was: “She protected herself; only a select few could peek behind the mask.”
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 relentless efforts to make the country live up to its stated ideals. Brown-Nagin makes it clear that Motley, like the other attorneys of the Inc Fund, had to be pragmatic to the point of ruthlessness, holding clients to the most scrupulous standards of the respectability politics of the time, and brushing aside anyone who could jeopardize the matter. But Motley also advised tired and anxious clients to persevere and make sure all the hard work wouldn’t have been in vain.
The work was sometimes painful and always painstaking; it was transformative for the country and molding for Motley. “Civil Rights Queen” is a balanced assessment of a brave and brilliant woman who helped reconfigure the system before she was part of it. Brown-Nagin ends by noting that as a judge, Motley was not the “gladiator” she once was; she brought some “groundbreaking” opinions, but was best known for her honesty and dedication. Reflecting on this “paradox of opportunity” for the outsider-turned-insider, Brown-Nagin honors her subject by being resolutely direct and unsentimental — steely, if you will. “The power structure is not fundamentally changing,” she writes. “At best, it’s fit for difference.”