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The First Black Woman to Become a Federal Judge

Constance Baker Motley was a groundbreaking civil rights lawyer and the first Black woman to become a federal judge. Her “world-changing accomplishments, which made her a ‘queen’ in her time, should place her in the pantheon of great American leaders,” alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. And yet,“far too few Americans today know Motley’s name and deeds. Students do not routinely study her work and example—[she was] King’s lawyer, Marshall’s co-counsel, and a tactician praised by both as phenomenally talented. Despite her tremendous role in the effort to slay Jim Crow, most books and articles on the civil rights movement understate her importance.”

Addressing this deficit, Tomiko Brown-Nagin has written a definitive biography, Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality. In this episode of Book Dreams, we speak with Dean Brown-Nagin about Motley’s trailblazing accomplishments as both attorney and judge; the discrimination Motley faced as a result of her race and sex; the societal forces in play as she and her colleagues sought to transform civil rights law; the highs and lows of her formative and longlasting professional relationship with Thurgood Marshall; and her likely reaction to the inequities Black Americans confront still today.

Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin is Dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, and Professor of History at Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Science. In 2019, she was appointed Chair of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. She is the author of Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality. Her previous book, Courage to Dissent, won the Bancroft prize in 2011.

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

“This nuanced biography of Constance Baker Motley examines the paradoxes in the remarkable life of a ‘first’: the first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate, the first female Manhattan borough president, the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary…That Motley is little known today is ‘a kind of historical malpractice,’ Brown-Nagin writes; this book is a convincing corrective.” The New Yorker

“This exemplary biography is timely and essential." The Washington Post

“Rigorously researched and elegantly written, Civil Rights Queen is a seminal biography of an extraordinary figure whose legacy has been obscured for far too long. Brown-Nagin powerfully illuminates Motley’s journey into the heart of American law and politics, and the result is a magisterial work that befits its subject.” —Ibram X. Kendi, bestselling author of How to Be an Antiracist

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