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Tomiko Brown-Nagin

  • The life of a ‘Civil Rights Queen’

    February 3, 2022

    In the 1940s and 50s, when Constance Baker Motley walked into a courtroom in the Deep South to try a case, people stared. And then they stared some more. For one thing, women lawyers were pretty rare at that time. For another, it was a safe bet that no one—regardless of race—had ever seen a Negro woman lawyer, let alone one with such imposing height and regal carriage. Add to that the fact that Motley was always impeccably turned out in a well-cut dress, high heels and a matching handbag, and often draped in her signature pearl necklace. She was, quite simply, a unicorn—one battling (genteely, but insistently) for civil rights. The arc of Motley's life—as a lawyer, as a politician and eventually as the first Black woman to be appointed to the Federal bench – is outlined in a new biography, Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality. The author, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, is a history professor at Harvard University and dean of Radcliffe's School of Advanced Study. She also teaches at Harvard Law School. Motley, she says, is a heroine to her – but one whose legacy often gets overlooked in the broader world.

  • Opinion: What the next justice will owe Constance Baker Motley

    February 3, 2022

    You have probably read about the controversy surrounding Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign promise to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court. Though it delighted many people at the time, it has a few others upset now that a vacancy on the high court has materialized. ... She was the only female lawyer at the Fund for 15 years. During her employment interview in 1945 with then Legal Defense Fund boss Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice asked her to climb a ladder next to a bookshelf. “He wanted to inspect her legs and feminine form,” writes Tomiko Brown-Nagin in her compelling and readable new biography of Motley, “Civil Rights Queen.” When Marshall stepped down to become a judge in 1961, he passed over Motley and picked a less experienced White man as his successor.

  • The ‘double-edged sword’ of being a Black first

    February 2, 2022

    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 ruled in some landmark cases and helped pave 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. On this episode, we spoke to Tomiko Brown-Nagin, author of Civil Rights Queen, the new biography about Constance Baker Motley. Motley was the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge and the first Black woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

  • Washington Post Live “Race in America” series to spotlight pioneering Black women during Black History Month

    February 2, 2022

    Washington Post Live today announced the “Race in America: History Matters” series will spotlight the contributions of Black women throughout American history this February. The upcoming conversations marking Black History Month will highlight Ida B. Wells, Mamie Till-Mobley and Judge Constance Baker Motley, among others. ... The series will feature Michelle Duster, historian and great granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, Deborah Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, and Tomiko Brown-Nagin, author of the new book “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality.” Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, will also share her reflections connecting the past and the present.

  • Charting the path of a ‘Civil Rights Queen’

    February 1, 2022

    In her new book, “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” Radcliffe Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin shines a light on a lesser-known, yet central player in the Civil Rights Movement and women’s rights pioneer. The daughter of working-class immigrants, Motley attended Columbia Law School, argued several cases before the Supreme Court, became the first woman of color in the New York State Senate, the first woman to serve as Manhattan borough president, and the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary. Brown-Nagin, who is also the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History, spoke with the Gazette about her new book and Motley’s lasting impact. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

  • What Conservatives Really Mean When They Say Biden’s Potential SCOTUS Nominees Are “Unqualified”

    January 31, 2022

    Justice Stephen Breyer had not even formally announced his retirement before Republicans and conservative legal operatives began their racist crusade against his as-yet-to-be-named successor. During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden promised to nominate a Black woman to the first seat that came open. Biden has many extraordinary candidates on his short list. But for reasons that should surprise nobody who’s been paying attention to recent history, these early commenters do not appear to see these candidates’ impeccable credentials and extraordinary accomplishments. Instead, they have opted to prejudge any Black woman, and indeed all Black women nominees, as inherently inferior and underqualified. ... Some background that is too often left out of these discussions: Women of color were locked out of the judiciary for most of American history. The first Black woman to serve on a federal court, Constance Baker Motley, was not appointed until 1966. Motley had a sterling track record of accomplishments: She argued before the Supreme Court on 10 occasions and won nine times, assisted Thurgood Marshall in litigating Brown v. Board of Education, and tried myriad cases in lower courts, including several in New York.* But as Harvard law professor and legal historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin has recently documented, the American Bar Association hesitated to approve Motley. Why? The white men who ran the ABA doubted whether she was sufficiently qualified. They ultimately gave her a lukewarm rating of “qualified” rather than “well qualified,” even though she was one of the most successful and experienced litigators of her era—an advocate so committed that she risked her life to defend her Black clients in the Jim Crow South.

  • Analysis: This Black woman judge laid the groundwork for those who would follow

    January 31, 2022

    As President Joe Biden reaffirms his commitment to nominate the first Black woman to the US Supreme Court, it makes sense to revisit the life and work of another Black woman who profoundly shaped the law: Constance Baker Motley. Motley was a “desegregation architect” who over the course of decades inspired numerous women lawyers and judges — including some on the short list of potential nominees. Yet she’s often missing from the pantheon of great Americans. Many are familiar with Thurgood Marshall, but few outside judiciary circles talk about Motley’s vital role in dismantling racial segregation and gender discrimination. ... In her magnificent new volume, “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, offers a gripping chronicle of Motley’s life and career, and in the process gives the trailblazer’s leviathan achievements the attention they deserve.

  • Biden isn’t first to prioritize race, gender in picking SCOTUS nominee

    January 31, 2022

    Fox News host Sean Hannity misleadingly claimed that President Joe Biden was venturing into unprecedented territory with his pledge to nominate a Black woman as a replacement for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who is retiring after 28 years. ... Nikolas Bowie, assistant professor of law at Harvard Law School, said Hannity’s claim “ignores the reality that from 1789 through 1967, every president made race and gender a defining factor in their selection process by refusing to nominate anyone other than a white man.” ... Tomiko Brown-Nagin, another professor of constitutional law and history at Harvard University, said the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Italian background was a “defining, positive factor in Ronald Reagan’s selection of him,” citing a report in Slate, a progressive online magazine.

  • ‘Civil Rights Queen,’ the Story of a Brave and Brilliant Trailblazer

    January 26, 2022

    How do you measure progress? The incrementalist counsels patience: Something is better than nothing, half a loaf is better than none. Characteristically, Malcolm X wasn’t having any of that. In a televised round table in 1961, the civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley tried to coax Malcolm into acknowledging that the average Black American “is substantially better off than he was at the end of slavery.” He scorned the very premise. “Now you have 20 million Black people in America who are begging for some kind of recognition as human beings,” he said, referring to the Black Americans imprisoned at the time, “and the average white man today thinks we’re making progress.” It’s an evocative exchange, one that the Harvard legal historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin showcases to illuminating effect in “Civil Rights Queen,” the first major biography of Motley, a decade in the making. Brown-Nagin juxtaposes Motley’s attempts to find common ground by asking a series of lawyerly questions (“You recognize, don’t you …? “Don’t you think …?”) with Malcolm’s scathing rejoinders. By the mid-1960s, Motley had been caught “in a bind,” Brown-Nagin writes. Working at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., or Inc Fund, since 1946, she had been a crucial 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, she was “weak and accommodationist,” Brown-Nagin writes. Set against figures like Malcolm, “her politics and style looked tamer — and they were.”

  • Black children being led to jail by policemen in Birmingham, Alabama

    Rescuing MLK and his Children’s Crusade

    January 14, 2022

    In “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” Harvard Law Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin traces the tactics of the groundbreaking lawyer amid pivotal protests.

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s book traces tactics of groundbreaking lawyer Constance Baker Motley amid pivotal protests

    January 14, 2022

    Excerpted from “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality” by Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Dean, Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law, and Professor of History. In the spring of 1963, the eyes of the nation turned to Birmingham, Alabama, then known as the home of a thriving iron and steel industry. In April and May of that year, Birmingham, a land trapped in a “Rip Van Winkle” slumber on issues of race, and the nation’s “chief symbol of racial intolerance,” according to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., became a flashpoint in the Black struggle for equality.

  • Woman sitting in a chair at the doorway of an office making a wide hand gesture.

    In Memoriam: Lani Guinier 1950 – 2022

    January 7, 2022

    Lani Guinier, the first African-American woman to be tenured at Harvard Law School and an influential scholar who devoted her life to justice, equality, empowerment, and democracy, died Jan. 7.

  • The power of eye-opening images

    December 17, 2021

    An op-ed by Tomiko Brown-Nagin: In 2021, I was struck—again—by the role of images in advancing justice. Among the most potent examples were the videos of the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Images have long been catalysts of change in the struggle for equal justice under law and civil rights in the US, a focus of my scholarship. Photographs of police violence against peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham “sickened” President John F. Kennedy and pricked the conscience of Whites who had ignored the horror of segregation, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When protesters marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and were attacked by law enforcement officers, footage of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” helped turn the tide in the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

  • What 2021 taught us about the fight for racial justice

    December 16, 2021

    The power of eye-opening images, by Tomiko Brown-Nagin: In 2021, I was struck—again—by the role of images in advancing justice. Among the most potent examples were the videos of the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Images have long been catalysts of change in the struggle for equal justice under law and civil rights in the US, a focus of my scholarship. Photographs of police violence against peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham “sickened” President John F. Kennedy and pricked the conscience of Whites who had ignored the horror of segregation, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When protesters marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and were attacked by law enforcement officers, footage of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” helped turn the tide in the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In recent years, ordinary people with cell phones have borne witness to racial violence and shared their footage on social media, making injustice more visible.

  • Both Sides Now – Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s bifocal view of the civil-rights movement

    December 15, 2021

    Tomiko Brown-Nagin is a legal historian of what she calls “one of the most celebrated social movements of all time—the black freedom struggle.” Two photographs sit on a bookcase behind her desk at Greenleaf House, the residence of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute’s dean—her role since 2018. One shows her with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the other with Congressman John R. Lewis, LL.D. ’12. They are proxies for contrasting ways she thinks about the American civil-rights movement. Sotomayor, the first woman of color on the Supreme Court, connects to work Brown-Nagin has done about the movement from the top down, shaped by federal courts, as in her new book on Federal District Judge Constance Baker Motley, called Civil Rights Queen. Lewis, on the other hand, connects to her 2011 book Courage to Dissent about the movement from the bottom up. He was among the early Freedom Riders who challenged Jim Crow laws and headed the bloody march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery, which led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The photos were visible recently as Brown-Nagin took part in a Radcliffe online event as chair of the initiative President Lawrence S. Bacow created on Harvard and the legacy of slavery. The effort is necessary, she said, “to understand and address the enduring legacy of slavery within our university.” The discussion touched on delicate issues, which the report on legacies of slavery, expected this winter, is likely to address: bequests of land, buildings, and money connected with slavery, as well as members of the Harvard community who were embroiled in the system of slavery. “As I’ve said many times,” she went on, “we can’t dismantle what we don’t understand, and we can’t understand contemporary inequity and injustice unless we reckon honestly with our history.”

  • Floyd’s Death Leads To Disinformation About Black Lives Matter Movement

    May 25, 2021

    Support for Black Lives Matter erupted after the murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin. But activists say many posts targeting Black Lives Matter are full of disinformation. Featuring Tomiko Brown-Nagin.

  • It would be glorious’: hopes high for Biden to nominate first Black woman to supreme court

    April 20, 2021

    Joe Biden’s promise to nominate an African American woman to the supreme court for the first time holds broad symbolic significance for Darlene McDonald, an activist and police reform commissioner in Salt Lake City, Utah...Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a civil rights historian, dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute and professor of constitutional law, said having qualified federal judges who “reflect the broad makeup of the American public” would strengthen democracy and faith in the courts. “It’s an important historical moment that signifies equal opportunity,” Brown-Nagin said. “That anyone who is qualified has the chance to be considered for nomination, notwithstanding race, notwithstanding gender. That is where we are. In some ways, we shouldn’t be congratulating ourselves, right?” Brown-Nagin pointed out that a campaign was advanced in the 1960s to nominate Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to sit as a federal judge, but some Democratic allies of President Lyndon Johnson opposed such a nomination because they saw it as too politically risky. “This moment could have happened 50 years ago,” Brown-Nagin said.

  • Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

    After a hard election, the real work begins

    November 13, 2020

    In a recent Harvard Gazette roundup, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Phil Torrey and other university scholars, analysts, and affiliates took a look at what the election tells us about the prospects for greater unity and progress, and offered suggestions and predictions about where the new administration will, and should, go.

  • Hard lessons from a tough election

    November 6, 2020

    It was a presidential election befitting the past four years, unprecedented and contentious...The Gazette asked scholars and analysts across the University to reflect on lessons learned in a variety of areas...Tomiko Brown-Nagin: “This election crystalized American promise and American peril. Fifty-five years after passage of the Voting Rights Act and 100 years after ratification of the 19th Amendment, the fundamental right to vote — the essence of a democracy —remains ferociously contested and deeply cherished. Turnout was extraordinary! An estimated 67 percent of eligible voters cast ballots — almost 160 million people — the greatest number in more than 100 years...At the same time, we witnessed a concerted effort to suppress the vote, to intimidate voters, and to delegitimize legally cast votes.” ... Sandy Levinson: “What we learned was that the uncertainty of this election is entirely a function of the crazy way that Americans elect their president, which is through the Electoral College. This means, for example, that [President] Trump gets nine electoral votes for carrying the two Dakotas plus Wyoming, which collectively have only about 200,000 more residents than New Mexico, which contributed only five votes. What remains an ‘interesting’ question, if one is an academic, is why Americans persist with such a truly dysfunctional system of presidential election.” ... Carol Steiker: “What I have learned in this election is that despite, or perhaps because of, the anger and divisiveness that have marked this political season, it is possible to substantially shift the needle on popular political engagement. We are seeing levels of voter turnout in this election not seen in more than a century, since William Howard Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1908.” ... Kenneth Mack: “What I have learned from this election so far is both a lot and a little. Historians typically look at elections as vehicles for possible political, economic, or social change. Certainly in the run-up to this year’s election we’ve seen some things change significantly. We have the first woman of color on a major party ticket (who now seems poised to become vice president), Black candidates seeming to run competitively statewide in several Southern states, and efforts to suppress minority voting of a kind we haven’t seen in decades.” ... Yochai Benkler: “ The right-wing propaganda feedback loop, anchored in Fox News and talk radio and supported by online media, has played two critical roles in the election. The first, and most foundational, is that throughout the presidency of Donald Trump it offered an alternative reality, in which the president was a strong, effective leader hounded by an alliance of Democrats who hate America and Deep State operatives bent on reversing the victory of Trump, the authentic voice of the people.”

  • How a Barrett Confirmation Could Impact Women’s Rights

    October 13, 2020

    In today's segment of "Bloomberg Equality," Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Harvard University professor of constitutional law, discusses what Amy Coney Barrett's inclusion on the Supreme Court bench could mean for the future of women's rights and diversity. She speaks with Bloomberg's Caroline Hyde, Romaine Bostick and Taylor Riggs on "Bloomberg Markets: The Close."

  • A new survey says white support for Black Lives Matter has slipped. Some historians say they’re not surprised

    September 28, 2020

    Earlier this summer, thousands of Americans spilled into the streets in anger and anguish over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, whose killings at the hands of police and vigilantes sparked an outcry against racism not seen in this country since the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Donations were made. Petitions were signed. Books like “How to Be an Antiracist" and “White Fragility" climbed to the top of bestseller lists. Protests spread from cities to suburbs, denouncing police brutality and demanding justice. More white Americans seemed willing to admit that deep-seated, structural racism did not end with the banishment of Jim Crow. But recent polling suggests white support for the Black Lives Matter movement has slipped. According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, support for the movement fell from 67 percent in June to 55 percent in September. The decline was driven largely by white adults, whose support dropped from 60 percent earlier this summer to 45 percent this month...In the context of US racial history, it is not surprising that support among non-Black groups, and white adults in particular, has fallen, experts said. Historians drew parallels between the current moment and the 1960s, a decade that saw sharp peaks and valleys in white support for the civil rights movement... “Importantly, that groundswell of support . . . followed white perpetrators attacking nonviolent demonstrators,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a legal historian and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. “That’s the scenario in which whites are likely to support civil rights movements because there are two clear sides” representing “good" and "evil,” she said... Krugler and Brown-Nagin said white backlash to the civil rights movement was intensified by the “law and order” rhetoric Richard Nixon deployed in his 1968 presidential campaign, which Trump and other political figures have echoed in their derision of protesters today.