In the spring of 1955, my mother boarded a train in Sumter, South Carolina. She was traveling to join my father, who had moved to Detroit shortly after I was born. The plan was that she would join him later. They both knew there was little opportunity for economic advancement for African-Americans in South Carolina. They became part of the great migration — Southern African-Americans moving north from the dangerous, segregated South.
She carried me in her arms. I was 9 months old. She packed and carried enough provisions for both of us for the two-day trip. My mother, as a child of the segregated South, knew that the dining car on the train was not available to her. Whatever we would need on the two-day journey was in her luggage. Food. Clothing. Hygiene. Years later she spoke of the kindness of the Pullman porters, the African-American men that worked on the train. One would surreptitiously take my bottle, warm it and return it to my mother. Another would alert her when the small communal bathroom in the “colored” car was just tidied and available so she could take time to clean herself and me of the traveler’s dirt.
Ten years later, a return trip was very different. My family stopped at a West Virginia Howard Johnson’s on a Southern road trip. We walked into the dining room and were promptly seated, our orders were taken and we were served — without incident, thanks to Constance Baker Motley. Constance Baker Motley, who?
As historian Gary L. Ford Jr. states in his recently published biography, "Constance Baker Motley: One Woman’s Fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice Under Law":
Many of the people Motley helped had no idea who she was or what she did for them. She operated within the confines of courtrooms where many protesters were either banned or strongly discouraged from attending their trials. She was their unseen and unknown guardian angel.
Ford is an attorney and professor of African studies at Lehman College. His biography of Constance Baker Motley is an interesting read, even for nonscholars. The book is also an excellent reference material. The appendix details Motley’s numerous cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, the various U.S. courts of appeals and the U.S. district courts.
Ford’s book is more than a general biography of the woman who would become the first African-American female United States district judge; it presents in vivid detail how her work altered the legal landscape of the United States systematically, case after case, dismantling the Jim Crow laws in the Southern United States. Most of us know that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (“LDF”) filed cases to end public school desegregation, defended individuals arrested at sit-ins, and provided legal support and guidance to the early civil rights movement in this country. Most forget that Marshall left the LDF in 1961 when he was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The legal enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education, the desegregation of professional schools and a host of other litigation and civil rights enforcement fell to Motley.
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Judging A Book: Cooke Reviews 'Constance Baker Motley'
Judge Marcia Cooke reviewed "Constance Baker Motley: One Woman’s Fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice Under Law" for Law360. Here's the personal and interesting intro: