Tomiko Brown-Nagin on Constance Baker Motley and the ‘American experience’

This spring, on the occasion of her appointment as the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law, Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin delivered a lecture titled, “On Being First: Judge Constance Baker Motley and Social Activism in the American Century.” Brown-Nagin’s talk focused on 20th century social reform through the life of Constance Baker Motley, an African-American civil rights activist, lawyer, judge, state senator, borough president — and protégé of Thurgood Marshall — who was called the “civil rights queen” for her litigation work during the 1940s and 1950s.

“Over seven decades of public life, she was a part of the waves of citizen-led activism that truly changed this country, changed our law and changed our policy,” said Brown-Nagin. “It’s because her life was so entwined with the century’s changes, that Motley can be understood to represent the American experience.”

Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Credit: Phil FarnsworthTomiko Brown-Nagin is currently at work on a biography of Constance Baker Motley, “The Only Woman in the Courtroom: Constance Baker Motley and Twentieth-Century Struggles for Equality.”

Also a history professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, Brown-Nagin is an award-winning legal historian and expert in constitutional law and education law and policy. Her 2011 book, “Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement,” won the Bancroft Prize in U.S. History, the highest honor awarded annually to a work in the field of history. It also won the John Phillip Reid Book Award, American Society Legal History and the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award, Non-fiction.

A sought-after teacher, she leads classes in American Legal History: Law and Social Reform, Constitutional Law, a Legal History Workshop, and a class on Topics in Education Law and Policy. She is also co-director of the recently established Law and History Program of Study at HLS.

Along with HLS Professor Gerald Neuman, she is co-editor of “Reconsidering the Insular Cases: The Past and Future of the American Empire,” published in 2015. It originated in a Harvard Law School conference, and grew into a powerful volume in which leading legal authorities examine the history and legacy of the insular cases, which are tinged with outdated notions of race and empire, and explore possible solutions for the dilemmas they created.

The endowed chair was named in honor of the late Daniel Perkins Smith Paul ’48, a leading First Amendment and environmental lawyer who successfully argued Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, a major press-freedom case before the Supreme Court.

Brown-Nagin is currently at work on a forthcoming biography of Constance Baker Motley, to be titled “The Only Woman in the Courtroom: Constance Baker Motley and Twentieth- Century Struggles for Equality.”