FROM THE INTRODUCTION:
Sam Terry was killed in cold blood. On February 27, 1949, a Sunday afternoon in rural Manchester, Georgia, about sixty-five miles south of Atlanta, white officers shot Terry—a veteran of World War II, a member of the “Greatest Generation,” and a thirty-seven-year-old Black man—three times in the back, once in the side.
Terry had been arrested for a minor infraction that had nothing whatsoever to do with him. Two officers hauled him from his home and locked him in a jail cell. While he was detained, they unloaded their weapons on him, claiming he had resisted arrest and tried to break away from his cell. Terry died of his wounds two days later. In the aftermath, the local sheriff disclaimed all responsibility. His men had done nothing wrong, he said: “no evidence was found” that Terry had been “mistreated” by the arresting officers—the same men who shot and killed him.
Terry’s widow, Minnie Kate, flatly contradicted the sheriff. Sam had not resisted arrest, his wife asserted; suffering from the mumps, he had been in no condition to attack anyone, much less officers of the law. But Sam had protested—verbally—when the officers had “manhandled” Minnie Kate and briefly placed her under arrest on trumped-up charges. Angered by Sam’s defense of his wife, the officers yelled, “Shut up, you black son-of-a-bitch or we’ll kill you.” Once they arrived at the jail, the officers “shoved” Sam into a cell, “followed him in,” “slammed the door,” and “immediately after” fired several shots at him. Minnie Kate, standing just outside the cell door, witnessed the events unfold; what she had seen and heard was an entirely unjustified shooting—a barbaric murder. What was more, Minnie Kate said, while Sam bled profusely from the gunshot wounds in his intestines, the officers had insisted that she had “better not holler,” or she “would get the same thing.”
News accounts and an attending doctor confirmed critical elements of Minnie Kate Terry’s version of events. The Atlanta Constitution
established that the doors of the cell had been locked when officers repeatedly shot Sam Terry. And the doctor who treated the veteran after the incident said that he had been shot four times. But Minnie Kate had no recourse in the state of Georgia, which at that time was governed by Herman Talmadge, a vicious racist. So she reached out to the national NAACP and its lawyers. Along with her allies, Minnie Kate “urge[d]” the lawyers to take “action” to “see that this injustice is brought to the limelight” and the “guilty ones are punished.” Murders of Black men “are spreading throughout the Southland.” She was not wrong. A reign of terror that began around 1880 continued through the mid-twentieth century: during this time, white mobs across the South, aided and abetted by law enforcement, murdered hundreds of African Americans, and often targeted Black veterans.
Terry’s death came to the attention of Thurgood Marshall, the chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF, or Inc. Fund), and his legal assistant, Constance Baker Motley, then just three years out of law school. Springing into action, Motley wrote to Tom C. Clark, Attorney General of the United States, and requested a federal investigation. Marshall followed up with a letter to the Department of Justice, seeking the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Nothing happened.
In 1950—more than a year after Minnie Kate Terry had buried her husband—Motley once again followed up with federal officials, to no avail. The Department of Justice closed the case, saying that the evidence was insufficient to support a prosecution. This failure to thoroughly investigate, much less prosecute, fit a pattern. Despite its wartime condemnation of the racism and violence of the Nazi regime, the U.S. government virtually ignored the wave of anti-Black terrorism—the all-too-frequent beatings, shootings, and lynchings of African Americans—that occurred in the postwar South. Veterans, who led a growing resistance to anti-Black oppression, were routinely victimized and in dire need of representation. Constance Baker Motley, then in her twenties, became one of the most prominent and tireless advocates for African Americans during this turbulent era.
By 1950, African Americans from not just the South but across the whole United States counted on Motley to stand up for racial justice and protect the rights of Black citizens. Handling dozens of cases at a time in a dizzying array of subject areas, she deployed her sharp legal skills to combat discrimination in the criminal legal system, in education, in housing, in the workplace, in politics, and in countless other areas. Her advocacy took her to small towns and cities throughout the South, to the urban North, and to the Midwest.
Wherever she appeared, the striking and audacious Motley captivated and stunned onlookers. At that time, few had seen a woman lawyer or even a Black lawyer, much less the extraordinary combination of the two. The novelty of Motley and her courtroom talents made her an icon of equality. “She’s a prime mover in the cause of civil rights across the nation,” wrote one reporter, and “may justly be called ‘The Civil Rights Queen.’” Part heroine and part warrior, the moniker implied, she wielded the law like a sword of justice.
In bestowing the affectionate honorific, observers did not merely acknowledge her work inside the courtroom. The title implied that Motley had transcended her lawyerly role. She often created a “sensation.” When “word got out that not only was there a ‘nigra lawyer’” but “a ‘nigra’ woman lawyer,” she recalled about her first trial in Jackson, Mississippi, it was “like a circus in town.” “They were amazed at the way I spoke.” Incapable of reconciling the lawyer’s role with a Black woman’s status in American society, some whites responded with tremendous hostility. In a federal courtroom during one trial, a white male lawyer, unwilling to call the imposing woman “Mrs. Motley,” instead “pointed his finger” in his opponent’s direction and called her “she.” In a rare show of anger, Motley set him straight: “If you can’t address me as Mrs. Motley, don’t address me at all.” A transformational lawyer, a trailblazing woman, and an exceptional African American, the Civil Rights Queen personified the extraordinary social change that she brought about through law.
Few would have predicted her rise. Motley’s own parents found her ambition to become a lawyer far-fetched. But she defied their expectations—something she did over and over again in her professional life. It was Thurgood Marshall, “Mr. Civil Rights,” who gave the young lawyer her big break. Before meeting him, Motley had faced a string of rejections from Wall Street law firms led by white men. If Motley repelled these powerful white male lawyers, she fascinated Marshall. He offered her a job at LDF on the spot, and she happily accepted.
There, Motley flourished. “Connie just walked in, walked in and took over,” Marshall recalled years later. She handled hundreds of civil rights cases over a twenty-year period that began in 1945 and continued through 1965—efforts that remade American law and society. In 1954, she played an invaluable role in Brown v. Board of Education
, a singular case in twentieth-century American constitutional law. The unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawed state-mandated racial segregation in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. Motley desegregated flagship public universities in Georgia and Mississippi. She represented the Birmingham Children’s Marchers, who were mercilessly attacked and thrown out of school for participating in antisegregation protests. She helped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. escape the horrors of a jail cell in rural Georgia. Throughout the course of her work for the civil rights movement, Motley compiled an enviable record as a trial and appellate lawyer. One of just a few women lawyers and the first Black woman lawyer known to appear at the Supreme Court, she won nine of the ten cases that she argued before the nation’s highest court. She summed up this work for the movement by saying, “We have wrought a miracle.”
But Motley’s legacy does not only derive from her exceptional career as a civil rights lawyer. After garnering fame as an attorney, she found a different way to fight for social justice, embarking on an entirely new career—in politics. Again, she made history. In 1964, New Yorkers elected Motley to the state senate; she was the first Black woman to serve in that legislative body. In 1965, she made political history once more when New Yorkers elected her to the Manhattan borough presidency; she was the first woman to serve in the post.
Motley then pursued a third act. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, making her the first African American woman to sit on the federal bench. During her more than thirty years on the court, Judge Motley decided numerous landmark cases in fields ranging from criminal law to civil rights and corporate law. The judge’s rulings in civil rights cases defined her judicial career. Over the objections of lawyers who insisted that as a former civil rights lawyer and a Black woman she could not be “fair,” Motley rendered decisions that implemented the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opened the workplace to women lawyers, journalists, professors, and municipal workers. At the dawn of mass incarceration, she issued a historic ruling mandating due process rights and humane treatment for the incarcerated. And in a case involving low-level drug offenders, she struck down sentences mandated by a new regime of tough-on-crime narcotics laws that left millions of Americans behind bars. Motley’s accomplishments, outstanding for any lawyer and unheard of among women attorneys, make her one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth century—a woman whose work created a “more perfect” union.
Copyright © 2022 by Tomiko Brown-Nagin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.