The 'double-edged sword' of being a Black first : Code Switch It's Black History Month, which is likely to bring boundless stories of Black Excellence and Black Firsts. So today on the show, we're talking about Constance Baker Motley — a trailblazing civil rights judge who paved the way for many to come after her (including, perhaps, the next Supreme Court justice?) But, as we learned, Motley's life was full of contradictions, and her many achievements also came with many costs.

The 'double-edged sword' of being a Black first

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I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. And this is CODE SWITCH from NPR.


GRIGSBY BATES: Well, Sam, it's that time of year again - Black History Month - and there may be some Black history being made, even as we speak. President Biden is in the process of nominating a justice to replace Justice Stephen Breyer's seat on the Supreme Court. And he's promised that the next justice will be...


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Someone with extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity. And that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court.

GRIGSBY BATES: He says he'll announce his choice at the end of the month. Our friends on NPR's politics team put together a list of frontrunners for the position - Black women who are district court judges, judges on state Supreme Courts, professors, civil rights lawyers. But it wasn't all that long ago that you would have been hard-pressed to find a Black woman in any of these positions. So today on the show, we're going to look at someone who helped pave the way for this historic event, someone you may never have heard of.


TOMIKO BROWN-NAGIN: Constance Baker Motley is a giant in the law. She was called the civil rights queen in her time. But she's far less well known to the general public today than she deserves.

GRIGSBY BATES: So often, when we talk about Black history and civil rights leaders in particular, the same few names tend to come up again and again. But here at CODE SWITCH, we're always thinking about what's left unsaid and the people who get left out of those conversations, folks whose names you may not know but whose work still has an impact, big or small, on our lives.

BROWN-NAGIN: Her absence gives us an incomplete sense of who rebuilt this country, who was involved in bringing about a country where equality of opportunity is valued and even achievable.

GRIGSBY BATES: We know this is true when it comes to the lawyer, judge and civil rights leader Constance Baker Motley. She was instrumental in successfully challenging Jim Crow laws throughout the South and played a significant role in Brown versus the Board of Education, which finally made school segregation illegal nationwide. Motley was also the first Black woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, the first to be elected to the state Senate in New York, the first woman elected Manhattan borough president. A lesser-known but still significant accomplishment - she's responsible for telling the New York Yankees to keep their towels on for locker room interviews. The list goes on.

But despite the hefty mark she left on this country, Motley's work was often overshadowed then and now by her male counterparts. But in the new book "Civil Rights Queen," author to Tomiko Brown-Nagin paints a portrait of Motley's remarkable legacy by bringing the story of her life and the struggle for equality front and center. That voice you heard just a moment ago? That was hers.

Brown-Nagin is the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a professor at Harvard Law School and professor of history at Harvard. I started out by asking her about Constance Baker Motley's origin story.

In some way, she was seen as an exception, even as she was seen as sort of the embodiment of an American success story. She ended up in a very lofty place in American society, but tell us a bit about where she started out, who her people were.

BROWN-NAGIN: Sure, it's a great question because who her people were and where she started out profoundly shaped the person that she became and how she moved through the world. She was born in New Haven, Conn., in 1921, to parents who had emigrated from the West Indies from Nevis, which during a long period of time was a key engine of the sugar industry and vital to the system of slavery and the Atlantic. Her parents were immigrants. And like other immigrants, they brought with them the values and the traditions of the old country.

So in this case, Nevis was a part of the British Empire, and her parents reveled in being a part of the empire. They spoke in British accents. They combined their Caribbean ways of being and food and traditions with British traditions. And they taught her that she was special and different and certainly different from American Blacks, whom her father thought very poorly of. And so, as I describe in the book, either because of or in spite of what she heard about American Blacks from her father, she became the civil rights queen, which is pretty remarkable.

GRIGSBY BATES: It is. And it's interesting because in some ways, your book underscores a schism in a lot of Black communities, among American born Blacks and people who are from other places - in this case, the West Indies. We don't hear that talked about a lot in part, I think, because people are a little uncomfortable about it, a little embarrassed about it. But it certainly existed back then, where the West Indian community in New Haven was very close knit and pretty substantial. So it is interesting that she moved beyond that to work with Black civil rights, Black American civil rights, which also benefited her parents, but I don't know that they saw it that way. Do you think she'd have been as successful as she was if her parents hadn't been ambitious West Indians?

BROWN-NAGIN: Wow, that's a great question. I don't know that I've thought about it that way. But I can tell you that that sense of being special and different and, you know, striving working-class people was vitally important to her sense of self. She was a striver and a very hard worker. And of course, it was important that in New Haven, she was growing up in the shadow of Yale University.

Her father and many of her male relatives worked for Yale. And the significant part of that, other than it providing a livelihood for the family, was that her father in particular and others in the family sort of read into himself the privilege of Yale. And so it compounded whatever he already thought about how he was special. And of course, the thing of it, Karen, is it's because in part they are immigrants from the West Indies that they even have this kind of opportunity, right?

And so when her father is saying - casting aspersions on Southern Black Americans saying that they are shiftless, they are not hardworking, of course, he's doing so from a place of relative privilege himself. And so it's a really interesting and I think still relevant story about the variety of people and attitudes within the African American community, as well as the reality that West Indian immigrants are immigrants, and immigrants to this country often have been taught to and learn to think of themselves as distinct - to define themselves against American Blacks. And so this story is an iteration of that broader story.

GRIGSBY BATES: She graduated NYU, then went to Columbia to law school at a time when there were very few women in law school and probably not terribly many Black people either. And while she was there, she got her first job at the Inc. Fund (ph), as they called it, through its director, Thurgood Marshall. Over her years of working with him, she came to be very fond of him and was sort of in awe of him in some ways. Marshall turned out to be both a help and a hindrance. Tell us why.

BROWN-NAGIN: Constance Baker Motley often said that if there had not been a Thurgood Marshall, no one ever would have heard of her. So he made her career. And that was because, first of all, he hired her at a time when women just were not hired by, you know, by major law firms. So she tells a story - a story that Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Sandra Day O'Connor or Pauli Murray could tell about not being able to get a job at a Wall Street law firm because she was a woman and, of course, did not help for her to be a Black woman either.

And when she went to see Marshall as the Inc. Fund, he hired her on the spot. He talked about the women he had known who had been schoolteachers and who were strong women, and he hired her. And she - under his tutelage, she worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for 20 years and just did phenomenal, remarkable things, including during her first trial, which was in Jackson, Miss., where she litigated a teacher's salary equalization case on behalf of Black women teachers.

Now I mention that case because it brings us back to the question of, well, how Marshall also represents not only the good of her career, but also some setbacks. So in 1961, Marshall was leaving the Legal Defense Fund, and there's a question about who should succeed him. And she wanted the job and believed she deserved the job, but she did not get the job. And so this mentor who had made her career, who had hired her in 1945, ended up denying her this job as director counsel of the NAACP. And she believed that it was because, in part, she was a woman.

And she said that, you know, women just didn't have those kind of positions then. They didn't have the status then. And importantly - and this is a theme that I bring out in the book - to be a woman was not to be a leader, right? So leadership is coded male. And she was disappointed in that, just as she had been disappointed after she came back to the Legal Defense Fund from litigating that teacher salary equalization case to have to fight for a proper title and a raise herself within the Inc fund. And so...

GRIGSBY BATES: That was pretty ironic.

BROWN-NAGIN: It (laughter) is quite ironic.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

BROWN-NAGIN: And - but it goes to show that in all institutions, even institutions that are dedicated to the cause of equality - in this case, racial equality - there can be blind spots and inequities that one has to struggle against.

GRIGSBY BATES: As our former co-host Shereen Marisol Meraji likes to say, it's complicated.


BROWN-NAGIN: That's right.

GRIGSBY BATES: Now, Motley's work to desegregate the Deep South was a serious burden that she was trusted with. Marshall entrusted her to go down, I think in part because he thought, oh, what violence is going to, you know, come to a woman? Even white southerners aren't going to do that. I don't know that he was totally right about that, but he felt in part that that was something that she was equipped to do, but also because she was sort of the backbone of these landmark drafts that were often argued in court with her and with her male counterparts. But she didn't love doing this. She went south to desegregate these institutions. You mentioned Ole Miss, Bama U, University of Georgia, Florida. She did this, like, almost two dozen times, just to the South, while she was a wife and a mother with another life in New York. She talked about some of that in a documentary about her life called "The Trials Of Constance Baker Motley," which came out in 2015.


UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: So you don't see your family too much, do you?

CONSTANCE BAKER MOTLEY: No, I don't. And that's one of the sacrifices that one has to make for the privilege of serving in a public office. I don't think you can, in effect, have your cake and eat it, too. There are some sacrifices which must be made...

GRIGSBY BATES: How did this affect her home and family life because this was dangerous work?

BROWN-NAGIN: It was dangerous work. And she was concerned more times than others, often when she was traveling, say, to Mississippi, where the danger was very obvious. So she was concerned that she wouldn't be able to see her family again because she might be killed in Mississippi. She thought, in fact, that it was lucky that she got out of Mississippi alive. And so there was that. There was the stress of knowing that the job that you're doing is not only taking you away from your husband and child. In one instance, it might take you away from them permanently. And yet she was on a mission on behalf of civil rights.

The other thing that she was doing when she was traveling back and forth to the South was trying to remain involved in the life of her family. So there's a story I tell about how in the middle of the trial involving - where she's trying to desegregate the University of Georgia, she would go to the office - or the clerk's office in the courthouse during a recess from her trial and call back home to New York to check on Big Joel and Little Joel, her husband and her son, just so that she could hear their voices and be connected. She sometimes took them on her trips to the South. For instance, they traveled with her when she went to the - litigate the University of Florida College of Law case because she had a brother down there, and so it was a trip that was both for pleasure and for work.

And that meant that as they were traveling from New Haven to Florida, all of those miles, they, as a family, endured the indignities that Black families did when they traveled. They couldn't stop at hotels. They had to, you know, rely on the kindness of people whom they met in Motley's professional life. There's a story about how a gas station owner in South Carolina refused to let the baby, the toddler, use the bathroom. And from that, she learned that they needed to find out first, before they stopped, if they were going to be allowed to use the facilities, and if they were, then they would pay for the gas. If they weren't, they would, you know, keep traveling to the next facility. So it's just an incredible story of family and of motherhood and professional striving, and then of, you know, the Black freedom struggle itself.


GRIGSBY BATES: After the break, more in the life of Constance Baker Motley, why she didn't call herself a feminist.

BROWN-NAGIN: She didn't spend time articulating her feminism, but certainly she did it. She did it by being the symbol of opportunity as a woman and as a Black woman and also doing the substance of the work.

GRIGSBY BATES: But she was pro keeping privates private in the locker room.

BROWN-NAGIN: Let them wear towels, is what she said.

GRIGSBY BATES: Stay with us.


GRIGSBY BATES: Karen - just Karen for the moment - CODE SWITCH. And we're back with author Tomiko Brown-Nagin. And I wanted to ask her about a strange contradiction I saw between the work that Constance Baker Motley did and the way she described herself.

She was an icon to a lot of young women who wanted to follow in her footsteps and do legal work. But she engaged in struggles, both as a civil rights attorney and later on in New York politics, where she prevailed despite her gender. She'd be the first woman to be the Manhattan bureau president, the first woman to do this, the first woman to do that. But she strenuously objected to the feminist label. I'm wondering if you have some insight as to why, especially when she had friends and colleagues who were proudly and openly feminist.

BROWN-NAGIN: So this is a fascinating part of the story of Constance Baker Motley, and it reflects the reality that she was a pragmatist. She was a moderate, by comparison to some other people in the civil rights movement and the women's rights movement. She had a certain kind of performance that she gave - racial performance, gender performance - that allowed her to attract male sponsors and to achieve many of the things that she did.

Now, in reality, she believed, like Pauli Murray or Shirley Chisholm, in equality for women. And yet, when she was in public office, when she was running for office, when she became Manhattan borough president, the first woman, she said that she was not a feminist. Don't call her a feminist. And I believe that reflects, again, her pragmatism, a position that she took that was mostly opposed, but it also reflected the way she was in the world. She didn't spend time articulating her feminism, but certainly she did it. She did it by being the symbol of opportunity as a woman and as a Black woman and also doing the substance of the work.

And in particular, when she was on the bench, she ruled in a number of cases that implemented the anti-discrimination title of the Civil Rights Act - Title VII. So she issued rulings that opened the workplace to women lawyers and journalists. She took a great interest in people who were like her - that is, people who were strivers. And she was a mentor and friend, even to judges - woman judges who were appointed after her. So she was a great friend to Sonia Sotomayor, the associate justice of the Supreme Court, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court when Motley was taking senior status - when she was retiring as a judge. She was a friend to Kimba Wood, a young woman also appointed to the U.S. District Court. And so many of them reflect fondly on Motley and how she befriended them. And I think it's a profound part of her legacy that she was the first in so many respects, but she made sure that she was not the only one.

GRIGSBY BATES: One of her most famous cases involves something we take for granted now - allowing women equal access to pro athletes in their locker rooms. She ruled on Ludtke v. Kuhn. And full disclosure - I have to say, Melissa Ludtke and I were classmates in undergraduate school, and I remember her talking about this. You know, there are things that go on in there that I should be privy to because they affect how you report the story. They also affect your career, you know, if you have access. Why did Judge Motley rule as she did in Ludtke v. Kuhn, and what did it change?

BROWN-NAGIN: Well, it certainly was not because she liked or knew anything about baseball. So if that had been the criteria, then she definitely would not have ruled the way she did. But she did so because it was understandable to her that to be denied that place inside the locker room was a disadvantage to the careers of women journalists and sports writers. The locker room was a context in which the players were more relaxed, had more time. It was a place where you could get the best interviews. And Melissa Ludtke tells a story about the World Series where she wanted to get an interview with Reggie Jackson. And she couldn't go into the locker room, so she just stood outside, you know, in the dugout and just waited hours for him to come out. And by the time he came out, he was just too tired to talk to her. And so that, you know, illustrated the disadvantage of being literally on the outside of the building where the action was taking place.

And the argument that was made in support to justify the exclusion of women was that the men were entitled to privacy. And the lawyer in that case actually cited precedents that led to Roe v. Wade for the proposition that privacy was at issue here. Motley understood that the instance of women journalists was no different from any other context in which a woman or a Black person might want to be on the same basis as men. And so it was a great case that solidified a reputation that Motley had, because she was a civil rights lawyer, of being especially open to civil rights plaintiffs and allowed women journalists like Melissa Ludtke to pursue their profession.

GRIGSBY BATES: She was also a little crispy, if I remember correctly, because she'd had the schematics of the Yankees locker room sent to her. And if I remember this right, she said to the Yankees lawyer, look, the showers are in a completely different part of the locker room. They don't have to walk around naked. If they're uncomfortable, tell them to put on towels.

BROWN-NAGIN: That's right. Let them wear towels...

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

BROWN-NAGIN: ...Is what she said. And I believe Melissa Ludtke had said the same thing. And so she just was not buying this, you know, excuse that the men needed so much privacy and couldn't protect their privacy in other ways.

GRIGSBY BATES: Throughout this book, I kept looking for instances of what she did or considered fun. Did she have any fun in her life?

BROWN-NAGIN: (Laughter).

GRIGSBY BATES: She's a very serious person. I know she loved her family, and she liked getting away to her summer home and all the rest. But it's like, when do you let loose?

BROWN-NAGIN: So that's a great question. I think that there is no doubt that Motley was a workaholic. And some of that was constitutional. She was a hard worker. She was a serious person. Some of it, though, likely reflected the reality that, as she herself once said in an unguarded moment, everyone's looking at her. She was under particular scrutiny as a woman, as a Black woman on the bench and in every job that she had. And she wanted to make sure that she was prepared and that she was able to handle the cases, that she knew them inside and outside. And so she worked long and hard as her profession demanded it and as she wanted to do those jobs, given her pioneering role.

Now, her fun was hanging out with her family and her friends. She liked dinner parties where she could, you know, eat good food and reflect on things that weren't work related with her friends and family. She loved her home in Chester, her summer home in Chester, Conn. And she liked inviting people, including family members and law clerks, to come there. And she would work in her garden there and cook dinners for her friends and family there. And that was the context in which she relaxed. Law clerks remembered that at those dinners, they were to talk about anything other than work. And so that was, you know, the context in which she let her hair down. And I also want to say that Motley was serious, but she had a great sense of humor, a wry sense of humor. And many people who knew her commented on that.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's another thing talked about in the documentary "The Trials Of Constance Baker Motley."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mrs. Motley, you have been described as being soft-spoken and quiet, but very, very tough. Would you say that's an accurate description?

BAKER MOTLEY: Well, I read that in The New York Times this morning, and I'm sure they're always accurate.



GRIGSBY BATES: So what are we readers supposed to take away from Judge Motley's life and career? I mean, she was a woman of Afro-Caribbean descent. She was a first in many, many ways. And yet I think the objective observer would say she was still hindered by her race and gender, even though she says she'd just power on and not really think about that. Did she ever admit that she might have gone further if she'd been white and/or male? I mean, we maybe could have seen her on the Supreme Court.

BROWN-NAGIN: Well, I don't know that she ever talked about the Supreme Court. She was repeatedly on the list or that was reported in the newspapers, and it was presumed that she would be promoted to the 2nd Circuit, the Court of Appeals in New York, but she never was. And it was in part because of stereotypes that were related to her past as a civil rights lawyer. Being the civil rights queen was a double-edged sword. So it reflected her achievements.

But it also meant that detractors could always weaponize her identity or her past as a civil rights lawyer to say that she was inappropriate for, say, a court of appeals position or even for the district court position. And the idea was that she couldn't be fair because of her background, which - you know, she was subjected to motions to recuse or to remove herself from cases because of her civil rights background and her race and gender.

And needless to say, she rejected that argument and turned it on its head and said, you know, everybody has an identity. Everyone has a background, and those cannot be, per se, reasons to be excluded from jobs. And so certainly, she understood that there had been limitations placed on her career because of her gender. And she had gotten pushback because of her race.

And yet I think Constance Baker Motley - ultimately, she reveled in what she did achieve. She enjoyed being a judge. She liked being looked up to by, you know, passersby on the streets in New York City or in her chambers. She was a legend, and she knew it, and she took great pride in it.


BROWN-NAGIN: And yet a theme that I end on in my work is the idea of the price of the ticket, which is taken from James Baldwin. And ultimately, the price of the ticket of entry into these elite, powerful positions for her and so many other outsiders - it means, first of all, that the system itself envelops you when one becomes a part of the system, meaning that one has to play by the rules, the norms and the traditions of that system. And of course, Motley had been fighting the system for so many years, and then she became the decision-maker. Until ultimately, I think in the case of Motley and many other instances, we learn that the logic of the system, the inequities of the system continue no matter and despite individuals who may be in charge, which is hard to swallow. And yet I think that there definitely is some truth to that.

And then the other part of it is that, as I said earlier, the civil rights background and her identity were double-edged swords. So she was singular, and she was an icon in part because of her identity. You know, people hadn't seen during the '40s and the '50s many Black lawyers, much less the combination of a Black and a female lawyer. And so she gained notice because of her identity. At the same time, she was, you know, denied the ability to gain promotions and to go as far as her talents would take her because of stereotypes that were related in part to her identity. And so it is a story that is about achievement, but it's also about reality.


GRIGSBY BATES: I think for a lot of people before now, Constance Baker Motley was part of America's hidden history. And now thanks to your book, "Civil Rights Queen," she's out there, and hopefully people will read it and learn something about it. I've really enjoyed it.

BROWN-NAGIN: Thank you so much, Karen. It's been a pleasure to talk about my book. And it's - it was a labor of love writing. Constance Baker Motley is someone who definitely should be known more broadly by Americans.


GRIGSBY BATES: And that's our show. You can find more from our interview, including some photos of Constance Baker Motley on our website - And we want to hear from you. Email us at or subscribe to our newsletter by going to And follow us on Twitter and IG. We're @nprcodeswitch.

This episode was produced by Summer Thomad and edited by Leah Donnella. Shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Kumari Devarajan, Jess Kung, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Christina Cala and Steve Drummond. Our art director is LA Johnson. Our intern is Nathan Pugh. And Gene Demby is back this week. Welcome back, Papa Demby. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. See you.

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