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Review of Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality by Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Civil Rights Queen: Constance baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality – book cover image from

Constance’s parents Willoughby and Rachel Baker immigrated to the United States from Nevis, an island in the West Indies . They settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where the couple began a family.

Willoughby went to work in the service industry as a chef at Yale University. Rachel took on the role of homemaker. Neither parent expected that as their daughter grew older and excelled in school, she would reach her dream of becoming a lawyer. They instead thought she would become a hairdresser or take on a different menial job like other members of their family did and live on decent wages.

However, a local industrial magnate and philanthropist, Clarence W Blakeslee, would alter Constance’s life. He made donations to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the New Haven Community Chest, and the Chamber of Commerce. Blakeslee also formed the Dixwell Community House to help improve the lives of Black and African American citizens. However, things did not go as he expected. Hardly anyone used the Dixwell House (Q House), and Blakeslee wanted to know why. So he arranged a meeting with the community, and one of the participants who spoke was nineteen-year-old Constance. She told the crowd and Blakeslee that the district did not feel invested in Dixwell House because he and others on the Yale board made all the programming decisions.

The meeting chair, George Crawford, a well-respected lawyer and influential figure for Constance, feared she alienated Blakeslee, but the opposite, occurred. The day after the meeting, Blakeslee invited Constance to Dixwell House to talk about her future; he would bankroll her college and law school education.

This significant act on Blakeslee’s part would set Constance on the course of becoming a lawyer and activist in the Civil Rights Movement as part of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s legal team. She would work alongside Thurgood Marshall, Jack Greenberg, and others to help shape legal strategy, research and write legal briefs, and even go to Court to prosecute cases across the nation, especially in the South.

Cases including Brown v Board of Ed, Turner v City of MemphisBoule v City of Columbia, etc., built her reputation. It led to her becoming Harlem Borough President and New York State Senator. After these careers, President Lyndon Johnson appointed her as the first Black woman to the judiciary.

I have known about Martin Luther King Jr, Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis, etc., who get extolled in Civil Rights history. I had no idea a successful woman and lawyer contributed to their efforts to improve the lives of Blacks and African Americans. I am so glad I know about Constance Baker Motley now, and I hope many more people find out about her. She has made as much or more impact as these legends.

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