During her confirmation hearings, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, acknowledged that she stands on the shoulders of the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge: Constance Baker Motley.

But what does it mean to stand on the shoulders of Motley, and to have been “blessed,” as Jackson remarked, to come of age after passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964?

It means that Motley changed Jackson’s life prospects, opening doors, and creating educational and employment opportunities previously denied to descendants of the enslaved. Without Constance Baker Motley’s pathbreaking contributions to American law and society, there would be no Ketanji Brown Jackson as we know her.

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Motley litigated dozens of cases that upended state-mandated racial segregation in the South, where Jackson grew up. Those discriminatory laws that Motley fought touched every American institution and belied the nation’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Blacks faced exclusion or discrimination in every sector—on juries and in law enforcement, in healthcare and housing, hotels and restaurants, parks and playgrounds, and in the workplace, schools, and universities. Jim Crow laws stunted the lives of generations of African Americans, preventing them from realizing what Jackson called her “God-given potential.”

Motley’s work to end segregation in schools and universities gained her renown as one of the nation’s most celebrated civil rights lawyers and transformed the trajectory of Jackson’s life.

A protégée of Thurgood Marshall—the nation’s first Black Supreme Court justice—Motley wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education. Considered one of the most important cases in American constitutional law, the unanimous 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision found segregated schools unconstitutional. But because of foot dragging and violent white resistance to school desegregation, it took years of painstaking litigation to ensure compliance with Brown. Motley led this monumental effort, too, desegregating schools in Atlanta, Savannah, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Chattanooga, Nashville, Mobile, Jackson, and Little Rock, among other places.

Jackson’s ascension to the U.S. Supreme Court will help fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. Motley’s efforts made it possible for Jackson to attend integrated schools in Miami, where she made friends from all walks of life, excelled as a debater, and prepared academically for a rigorous college education.

After Motley desegregated K-12 schools in the South, she turned to segregation in higher education. She litigated and won cases that opened flagship public universities in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi to African Americans. And these cases shaped the legal and social environment in which educational institutions far outside the South, including Ivy League schools like Harvard, began to admit appreciable numbers of African American students for the first time.

Yet even once academically gifted students like Jackson gained access to historically white institutions, the road could be rocky. During her confirmation hearings, Jackson spoke of moments when she questioned whether she truly belonged at Harvard. She attended the university for both college and law school, and ultimately graduated with honors from both. But it took the kindness of a stranger, a Black woman passerby who admonished a distressed Jackson to “persevere,” to help her remain on course.

Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality
Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality
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It was Motley’s achievements that paved the way for Jackson to enter Harvard, too, and they are all the more remarkable in the context of the extreme challenges Motley herself faced as a student, and later as an attorney and judge.

Motley was one of only a handful of women at Columbia Law School during World War II, and she was frequently “the only woman in the courtroom” as she litigated landmark civil rights cases. Motley once endured a hearing before a federal judge in Birmingham that began with his observation: “Well, you’re a woman!” How could she possibly be in charge, he wanted to know.

Detractors also often explicitly told Motley that she and other African Americans did not belong. During an oral argument before the Florida supreme court, a judge cited “innate” “moral, cultural, and I.Q. differences” between African Americans and whites to justify continued segregation at the University of Florida School of Law. And Motley endured disrespect from many of the white male judges and lawyers she squared off against in court. The lawyer who defended segregation at Ole Miss refused to call her “Mrs. Motley”—in open court he addressed Motley only indirectly, as “her” or “she.” Motley persevered. She sought justice and dignity for herself, as well as for her clients, and for all those, like Jackson, who would follow her.

She did this despite threats to her life. In Alabama, men armed with automatic weapons guarded her as she slept. And in Mississippi, Motley faced was tailed by the state police as her friend Medgar Evers drove her back and forth to the federal courthouse. Motley escaped Mississippi alive, but an assassin murdered Evers just a month after she had left the state for the last time.

Motley was also a mother. She worked the long hours required to help win Brown v. Board of Education while pregnant and then with a baby boy. In fact, the trailblazing working mom had an uneasy relationship with traditional motherhood; her son had “turned out well,” she reflected in the twilight of her life, “even though his mother was always working.” Her early effort to balance work and family life makes Motley’s a story of enduring significance to many American women. That includes Judge Jackson, a mother of two daughters who, in her opening statement, called attention to her struggles as a working mom. “Girls, I know it has not been easy as I have tried to navigate the challenges of juggling my career and motherhood,” Jackson said. “And I fully admit that I did not always get the balance right.”

The parallels between Motley’s struggles and Jackson’s, and the older judge’s way-making for the younger one, also extend into Jackson’s confirmation process. Motley, a standard-bearer of initial efforts to diversify the bench, gained her nomination under conditions not unlike President Biden’s announced commitment to appoint a Black woman to the nation’s highest court. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who cared deeply about racial equality, expressly sought names of prospective Black and female appointees to prestigious federal posts. Motley’s name appeared on several such lists. Critics pounced on both presidents, notwithstanding the abysmal representation of people of color and women on the bench, the historic nature of the appointments, and the nominees’ exceptional qualifications.

Like Jackson’s, Motley’s confirmation process proved arduous and unfair. The playbook that critics deployed against both women also bear disturbing similarities. Critics have sought to weaponize Judge Jackson’s two-year stint as a public defender serving poor clients in much the same way as they used Motley’s practice background against her. Detractors lobbied against Motley’s nomination to the federal bench on grounds that her accomplishments as a civil rights lawyer made her “too political,” an inappropriate choice for the bench. And, as in Jackson’s hearings, certain Senators made particularly outlandish charges.

In Motley’s case, Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, a wealthy plantation owner who claimed that Brown v. Board of Education had “destroyed the Constitution,” held up Motley’s nomination for seven months. Wielding the power of his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, Eastland called Motley a “Communist,” a potentially devastating aspersion leveled against advocates of racial equality.

Much more potent than the alleged association with “critical race theorists” that some Senators used as a cudgel against Jackson, the Communist accusation destroyed lives and careers during the Cold War. But in the end, Eastland’s smear tactics did not prevent Motley’s historic appointment in 1966, just as scurrilous attacks on Jackson’s character, including the disproven “soft on crime” claim, ultimately will fail. Jackson likely will be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, achieving what Motley might have but did not, owing in part to unending critiques of her past record.

Even after Motley took her seat on the United States District Court, her identity and her career as a lawyer pursuing equity for the oppressed—including criminal defendants—were used against her. Most famously, during a 1975 sex discrimination case filed against a prestigious law firm by several female law school graduates, Motley’s race and sex explicitly figured into calls for her to withdraw from the case, which was an early test of the employment provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In personal correspondence to the judge and in a formal motion to disqualify Motley, an attorney for the firm argued that she should not preside in the case because “as an African American and a woman, she likely had experienced workplace discrimination” and would strongly identify with other women who alleged discrimination; “I believe you have a mindset that may tend, without your being aware of it, to influence your judgment.” The attorney argued, by implication, that only white men could properly preside in a discrimination suit.

In a brilliant opinion rejecting the motion to recuse, Motely turned the attorney’s argument on its face. “It is beyond dispute that for much of my legal career I worked on behalf of Blacks who suffered race discrimination,” noted Motley. “I am a woman, and before being elevated to the bench, was a woman lawyer.” However, these facts did not and could not, by themselves, rise to the level of “bias.” “[I]f background or sex or race of each judge were, by definition, sufficient grounds for removal, no judge on this court could hear this case,” Motley wrote. In the end, the case would open the door to the legal profession for Jackson and millions of American women.

Motley was touted for both the Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, but persistent claims of “liberal bias” meant she never got the chance. Nevertheless, the soaring opinion by this pathbreaking Black woman judge defending her right to serve on the bench paved the way for Jackson and so many others who face challenges based on their identity. That is what it means to stand on Motley’s shoulders.

Motley did not reach the highest court of the land, but she belongs in the pantheon of great American leaders. It is time for hers to be a household name, invoked in the same breath as Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr. The underappreciation of this fascinating woman in our public histories and popular culture distorts our collective sense of who helped create our “more perfect Union.”

Long before the Jackson confirmation hearings, many women lawyers, especially women of color, considered Motley their professional North Star. She was one of just a few women lawyers—and the first Black woman lawyer—known to have appeared at the U.S. Supreme Court, and she won nine of the 10 cases that she argued there on behalf of civil rights protesters, students, and criminal defendants, among others. It is no wonder that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called Motley “my human rights hero.”

Kamala Harris, the first woman, the first African American, and the first South Asian vice president, has said that Motley inspired her “to fight for the voiceless and for justice.” Sherrilyn Ifill, the director-counsel emerita of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, created the “Marshall-Motley” scholarship fund, simultaneously honoring “Mr. Civil Rights” and “the Civil Rights Queen,” a leader in her own right.

Motley’s life should inspire every American.

And she paved the way for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman who will make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, and break through one of the nation’s highest glass ceilings. This moment has been a long time coming.

Tomiko Brown-Nagin is dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, and author of Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality.

tomiko brown nagin, dean of the radcliffe institute for advanced study daniel ps paul professor of constitutional law professor of history was photographed at radcliffe yard
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Rose Lincoln


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