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Constance Baker Motley > Articles > The New Yorker > Judge Motley's Verdict
May 16, 1994

Forty years after the N.A.A.C.P. won Brown v. Board of Education, the first woman on its legal team discusses the battle over integration–then and now.
From time to time when Constance Baker Motley is invited to recall her glory days as an N.A.A.C.P. lawyer in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, she is challenged by law students who think of her as an anachronism, a holdover from a time when it was believed that undoing the pathology between the races could be accomplished largely through the courts. This was the case last October, for example, when Motley, a New York federal judge, spent a week as jurist-in-residence at the law school of the University of Indiana in Bloomington. Motley is popular on the law-school circuit; she and her former colleagues at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund ride a crest of civil-rights-era nostalgia.
On May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education which overturned school segregation, Motley, then a Legal Defense Fund trial lawyer, was thirty-two years old. She was "the girl in the office" then, the drudge, but over the next ten years she became the only woman at the plaintiff’s table in the Jim Crow South as she and other lawyers tried case after case to enforce the Brown decision; she helped to desegregate lunch counters, schools, and buses, and in those years she also argued ten cases in front of the Supreme Court. In Montgomery, Alabama, she recently recalled, she argued five different appeals in one day as the school boards tried to put off the evil moment of desegregation. In Jackson, Mississippi, a local paper referred to her as "the Motley woman." She was chided for her fashionable clothes. Her presence in court often brought dozens of spectators, simply to marvel at the fact that a Negro woman could actually be a lawyer. But the majority of the law students who gathered to hear her at Indiana last October were only vaguely aware of her importance. They weren’t yet born when she travelled from courtroom to courtroom through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
A few days before Motley arrived in Indiana, Alfred Aman, the law-school dean, arranged a display of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund’s achievements in the foyer of the law-school building: among other items, news accounts of Charlayne Hunter entering the University of Georgia in 1961 and James Meredith desegregating the University of Mississippi the same year were visible in a glass case. The moot-court room at the law school was filled to capacity on the afternoon Motley delivered her lecture. That night, she spoke at a dinner given by the Black Law Students Association, or B.L.S.A. She recalled the many school-desegregation cases that had led to and followed Brown, but after she spoke she was kept busy answering sharp questions about her own experiences, posed by several of the B.L.S.A. members: the narrative of Constance Motley’s life seemed to contradict the reality of modern racial politics. "Shouldn’t you have fought for equal schools?" one student asked her, and went on to cite the breakdown in black communities, the black-on-black crime, the miserable test scores, and the loss of pride among black men. "Your generation always used the word ‘mainstream,’ " another student said, and asked, "What is wrong with black culture?" Motley was brisk with the B.L.S.A. students. "I don’t know what black culture is," she said, as if attempting to camouflage her irritation. When Motley returned to New York, she told me that she had been startled at being asked to defend herself. At this point in her life, she has come to expect, at the very least, a certain degree of respect for what she and the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund accomplished. A mistake to fight for integration? The guiding principle of Constance Baker Motley’s life has been her belief that the law is the primary instrument of social reform. "In my early days at the N.A.A.C.P., I could never have imagined this situation at the colleges today," she told me.
A few weeks later, I went to visit Judge Motley at the United States Court House in downtown Manhattan. I took the elevator to the twentieth floor, but Motley was not yet in her chambers; she was in court, hearing pretrial motions on a case that involved the alleged mistreatment of a Black Muslim by prison officials.
The décor of Motley’s chambers was very feminine, with floral chintz curtains and pink walls. Judge Motley’s law clerk had left a stack of faded newspapers for me on the conference table. A headline on the top paper, a copy of the September 11, 1963, Times, read, "WALLACE ENDS RESISTANCE AS GUARD IS FEDERALIZED; MORE SCHOOLS INTEGRATE." The news story described the events of the previous day, when, after months of resistance by Governor George Wallace, the schools in Birmingham and two other Alabama cities were integrated. It told of a blond high-school girl in Birmingham who had cried when she learned that black children were enrolled in her school. "I hope my momma heard, so she’ll come get me," she said. The Times correspondent in Birmingham related that seventy-five youths had shouted, "Keep the niggers out!" "Go home!" and "Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!" I flipped through the stack of newspapers. In one, I saw a photograph, snapped in the hallway of the federal courthouse in Birmingham in l962, that showed Motley wearing a fashionable black coat and matching hat and an elegant printed scarf. She was looking down at the floor, as if to distance herself from the mob, but she did not look particularly afraid; in fact, she appeared oddly serene.
There was also an envelope of documents referring to Constance Motley that went back as far as fifty years. They included the expected awards letters and banquet menus, and some unexpected examples of the way she handled her anger: Motley had kept a copy of every complaint she filed with the Taxi and Limousine Commission about drivers who failed to pick her up. ("Complainant, who is a Negro, charged that respondent discriminated against her . . .because of complainant’s color.") Then I came to a single-spaced letter signed "Anthropologist":
Mrs. Motley:
When you made your plea before Judge Tuttle, how many windows did you raise to let your stinking body odor escape? How much cologne did you use to saturate your clothing with to prevent others from smelling your stinking body? . . . It is hard to see how any person with an ounce of brains would get up and argue that the nigger is equal to other races. It just is not so.
As I finished the letter, Judge Motley walked into the room. I asked her about the letter, and she told me she could hardly remember receiving it. "I used to get letters like that all the time. I wonder why I even kept it," she said.
Constance Baker Motley is seventy-two years old. When she was admitted to Columbia Law School, in 1943, her photograph ran in a rotogravure for African-Americans, and she was held up as a role model. "She’s one of the few Negro women enrolled in Columbia University’s famous School of Law," the caption noted. As time passed, she became the first African-American woman to be a New York state senator, a borough president (Manhattan), a federal judge. Judge Motley is tall and large-boned, but she has delicate features and dainty hands and feet. She is judicial, formal, precise. Unlike many of the civil-rights activists of her generation, she is far more comfortable discoursing on the history of the Fourteenth Amendment than delivering an impassioned speech. Given what she has been through, her dry, legalistic demeanor may be her most remarkable achievement. She has been in jail cells with Martin Luther King, Jr., where the air was so foul that she became faint; she spent long nights in Birmingham churches singing freedom songs; she stayed with Medgar Evers, and, under armed guard, in the Birmingham home of a Legal Defense Fund attorney whose house was repeatedly bombed during the fifties and sixties; racist insults have been hurled at her by white lawyers. Yet, for all this, her memories tend to be a lawyer’s memories. She focusses on the method by which school integration was actually achieved, the litigation strategies, the motions and sustaining orders, the quashing of subpoenas, the emergency appeals. It was her knowledge of the law that enabled her to transcend the emotionalism of the Jim Crow courts. In her 1992 memoir, "In My Place," Charlayne Hunter-Gault recalls sitting with Constance Motley at the plaintiff’s table in a Georgia courtroom during her attempt to enter the University of Georgia: "She barely acknowledged my presence. . . . I never, for example, heard her laugh in the presence of any state or university officials, except as a barely masked form of sarcasm. It seemed as if this was the most important mission in her life. In fact, she often talked about the South in those days as if it were a war zone and she was fighting in a revolution. No one–be it defendant or plaintiff–was going to distract her from carrying her task to a successful conclusion."
Until she was a teen-ager, Connie Baker had never heard of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth. She attended a New Haven school where she was one of the few Negro students. Her parents, originally from the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis, moved to New Haven at the turn of the century and became part of the clannish West Indian community there. Connie Baker had eleven brothers and sisters. Although the family was poor, the children had an air of superiority, from their parents’ years at British schools. The Bakers lived on the outskirts of the Yale campus, and Connie’s father was a cook at Skull & Bones; in fact, most of the Baker family was associated with Yale–her uncles also worked in the university’s clubs. "They told all the little white Yalies what to do," Judge Motley’s niece and namesake Connie Royster told me.
Nevertheless, Connie was once turned away from a Connecticut beach near New Haven, and some restaurants in New Haven wouldn’t serve blacks. She learned about black heroes and heroines and discovered the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois at church lectures.
Last October, Judge Motley was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, in Seneca Falls, New York. The list of women inducted with her included the physicist Rosalyn Yalow, who had won a Nobel Prize; the civil-rights leader and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund Marian Wright Edelman; the labor organizer Dolores Huerta; and Wilma Mankiller, the chief of the Cherokee Nation. The mother of Emmett Till, a black teen-ager who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, accepted an award for Rosa Parks, who had inspired the 1955-56 bus boycott in Montgomery when she refused to give up a front seat. "Rosa Parks was willing to pay the cost to save the lost," Emmett Till’s mother said. Most of the women used the occasion to make political speeches, but Judge Motley spoke about a white man named Clarence Blakeslee. "There was no money for me to go to college," she said. "I went to work at the National Youth Administration, and one day I gave a speech at a black community house. Clarence Blakeslee had built the community house. He was a contractor who had done a lot of work at Yale.
He had made millions of dollars, and what he did with those millions was to help educate black Americans." Blakeslee had been impressed by the teen-ager’s speech and had asked her where she would attend college. When Connie Baker told him that her parents could not afford to send her, he offered to pay for her entire education. "Clarence Blakeslee was a white man responsible for my being here today," she said.
Connie Baker travelled to Fisk University, in Nashville, by train, riding in a Jim Crow car; she was eager to experience segregation. Her parents were frightened for her; they themselves refused to cross the Mason-Dixon Line. On her first trip home, she brought them back a "Colored Only" sign. At Fisk, she met, for the first time, black students from middle-class families in the South, who were ensconced in black communities, with their own clubs and churches. "It was my first experience in a black institution with black people who were just like white people, as we used to say," Judge Motley said of Fisk. "Their parents were college educated, they had wealth. For the first time, I met blacks who were doing something other than cooking and waiting on tables. They intended to go back into the black community." White people, however, were the standard, and Connie Baker could not understand why the Fisk students were not interested in advancing in the white world. It was, she told me, the enigma of her college days. "All of our lives, we had to be like white people. We had to dress, think, and act like white people," she recalled, yet her classmates did not want to become part of the white community.
At Columbia Law School, she began to work as a volunteer at the N.A.A.C.P.’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., a subsidiary that Thurgood Marshall and his mentor, Charles Houston, had created in 1939. It was usually called the Inc. Fund, for short. Marshall seemed to find little remarkable in the fact that she was a woman, and took her on as a clerk. After she graduated, in 1946, she began working full-time. Her salary was fifty dollars a week. Besides Motley, the entire staff consisted of Marshall and three other lawyers, one of whom worked part time. At first, Motley worked on housing cases, challenging the restrictive covenants that excluded blacks from buying real estate in white neighborhoods. Marshall was then involved in several cases to integrate universities at the graduate-school level, such as the ones in which Ada Sipuel sought admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law and Heman Sweatt to the University of Texas School of Law. It was Marshall’s strategy to argue the graduate-school cases under Plessy v. Ferguson, the onerous 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld existing separate-but-equal doctrine and set up the legal framework for segregation. Marshall argued that since there were no black law schools in Texas and Oklahoma, Sipuel and Sweatt should be admitted to the white institutions. Ultimately, of course, in Brown, the Supreme Court ruled against separate facilities, arguing that even where they were equal segregation per se had a negative effect.
In 1949, when Connie Motley tried her first case, in Jackson, Mississippi, the people there had hardly ever seen a Negro lawyer before, and had never seen one who was a woman. She was married by then. Her husband, Joel Motley, was a New York real-estate broker whom she had met when they were living at the Harlem Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A., respectively. They had got married in August of 1946, and this was her first trip to the deep South ever; her husband worried about her. Her only experience in a courtroom had been observing the meticulous style of Charles Houston in a University of Maryland nursing-school case. Motley found it impressive that Houston wrote down every one of his exhibits and questions in advance and never deviated from his text.
Motley and her colleague Robert Carter, who is now also a federal judge, booked a Pullman to Jackson. (She had bought a new dress at Lord & Taylor for the trial.) The case was an equalization-of-salary suit originally brought by a teacher, Gladys Noel Bates. When Connie Motley walked into the courtroom in Jackson for the first time, she was appalled by a W.P.A. mural depicting the glories of lost Dixie which covered an entire wall. She remembers staring at the white women in their crinolines and hoopskirts on one side and the darkies hoisting cotton bales on the other. She had never imagined that on her first big case, when she needed all the poise she could muster, she would have to interrogate witnesses and offer arguments while being confronted with such a spectacle. She recalls that trial as one of the few occasions when she was almost overcome with rage.
Other memories of the trial also remain vivid. "When we got to court on the first day, we saw that all the seats were taken by whites, because the black people believed that they had to sit in the balcony," she told me. "But this court did not have a balcony, so the blacks stood along the walls. After the first session, Bob Carter told the people that, unlike in state court, in a federal court you could sit anywhere you wanted. The next morning, we got there at nine o’clock, and all the seats were taken by blacks."
She went on to say, "In those days, no black lawyers ever went to court. If they had a case, they got a white lawyer to go for them. Bob and I needed a local lawyer to appear and sign the complaint. This was the first case since Reconstruction where blacks had appeared as lawyers in a courtroom in Mississippi. We found a black lawyer who lived in Meridian, Mississippi–James Burns. He owned a little grocery store, and he was scared to death. When we were in court, he sat with his back to us. He was making notes. He wanted to give the impression that he was just local counsel. He wanted to convey that he was not the lawyer bringing the suit. On the second day of the trial, Bob Carter said to him, ‘Go out and see if our witnesses are out there.’ He went out bent over completely–again, showing that he knew his place as a black man. When we went to have dinner, he would disappear; he did not want to take the chance of being killed with us.
"From time to time, the judge would rule in our favor, and once Bob spoke to the judge about a witness who was speaking very softly. He said, ‘Could you ask that witness to speak up, please?’ The black people in Jackson had never seen that before, and when Bob went to get his hair cut at the barbershop that evening everyone was reënacting this white man being made to speak up so a black man could hear. The final day, the judge was very polite. He addressed me as Mrs. Motley. The judge was from the Mississippi coast, and had no hostility toward black people. So, on the last day, when Bob told our lawyer to go out and get our witnesses, Burns for the first time in the entire trial walked out erect. I said to Bob, ‘At least we have accomplished something in this case.’ "
In the several TV movies made about the drama leading up to the Brown decision, the Inc. Fund is commonly portrayed as resembling a tabloid newsroom, filled with bantering black lawyers. The office jokes have become standards; one had it that Marshall called himself "H.N.I.C."–"head nigger in charge." In Jack Greenberg’s book "Crusaders in the Courts," a history of the Inc. Fund that will be published this month, a different portrait emerges. Greenberg, now a Columbia Law School professor, started at the Inc. Fund several years after Connie Motley. For a while, they shared the same office. (When Greenberg, as a naïve young white lawyer, first met Motley, according to his new book, he was startled when she quickly corrected his use of the term "Negress," then in common use. "Negress," she said, "was like using the word ‘tigress’ or ‘lioness,’ and was offensive to women.") In one TV miniseries, "Separate but Equal," the actor Ron Silver portrayed Greenberg, and Sidney Poitier portrayed Thurgood Marshall. Greenberg recently told me that he was nettled by the histrionics. "The idea that Thurgood was waving his arms around in court yelling and screaming and grimacing!" Greenberg said. "Thurgood didn’t do that. In fact, no lawyer does that. Except William Kunstler." The real atmosphere was "lawyers at work," Greenberg recalled, the pedestrian stuff of "following precedents and filing motions for preliminary injunctions." It was difficult to tell the difference between the Inc. Fund office and any other office, except that its occupants talked about race all the time.
"What do you remember about the day of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education?" I asked Judge Motley a few months ago. We were on a train on our way to Washington. It was the morning of the Supreme Court’s memorial service for Thurgood Marshall, and Judge Motley had been asked to speak. At first, her memories were atmospheric–the pandemonium in the office, the joyous ringing of the telephones. That night, she recalled, she went home to her apartment on West End Avenue. She was proud of that apartment; the Motleys were the first black family to move into the building. Motley had big plans then for her two-year-old son, Joel–and, indeed, he ultimately graduated from Harvard Law School and became a partner in an investment-banking firm. Motley’s memory of the day of the Brown decision focussed on Joel in his high chair. She had already realized, she told me, that the effect of Brown was going to be primarily psychological, and she informed her toddler that the Supreme Court had, that very day, undone segregation. She made no effort to explain it in terms a two-year-old might begin to comprehend, but she was convinced that Joel understood her.
When she got to the office the next morning, she learned that Walter White, the head of the N.A.A.C.P., had had to cancel a lecture date in Selma, Alabama. "Thurgood called me and said, ‘You go, Connie’–very terse. He did not say, ‘I will help you with your speech,’ or give me any ideas. You were supposed to do it on your own. If you made a mess, you made a mess. That was the way Thurgood was. So I went to Selma that Sunday. And the place was jammed. It was a small church, and one man had even come in an oxcart."
It was Connie Motley’s first real exposure to Southern black rural poverty. She recalled the drive from the airport in Birmingham to Selma, during which she looked out the window at tarpaper shacks and outhouses. She was not prepared for the starkness. "It sort of knocked me over," she said. The church was filled with people from all over Alabama, many of whom had saved their money to travel to hear Walter White. Thinking of that day in Alabama, she recalled that she knew immediately that the white people would fight Brown all the way. She saw her future in terms of a vast tapestry of court cases and problems, and worried about how the tiny Inc. Fund, with its minimal budget, could afford the years of litigation. On the flight back to New York, she recalled, her euphoria over the Brown decision faded, and she felt lost, with no idea what lay ahead.
As each Brown v. Board of Education milestone occurs, civil-rights legal scholars–Randall Kennedy among others inevitably comment on the obliqueness of the Court’s language, which led to years of legal maneuvers and the continued de-facto segregation that plagues inner-city schools. When the Brown decision came down, Motley recalls, it was initially viewed as a decision that prohibited segregation but not as one that required affirmative action from state officials. Connie Motley prepared many of the hundreds of court papers and arguments necessary to enforce Brown, yet she never became a darling of the civil-rights movement, perhaps because her skill as a litigator lay in her very thorough preparation and understanding of the arcana of the law.
Connie Motley first met Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Atlanta. King was seen as a nuisance by the Inc. Fund, because his demonstrations had strained their ability to pursue school cases. In 1962, King had been enjoined by a court order from leading a march in Albany, Georgia. Motley arrived in Atlanta at one in the morning, in order to be in Judge Elbert Tuttle’s court that day. Tuttle, an Eisenhower appointee, held relatively liberal views on race. He was born in California, and had once seen his mother leave her porch and stand at a bus stop with a black woman so that the bus would stop to pick her up. At the airport, Motley was met by the Legal Defense Fund’s local counsel and, to her surprise, by William Kunstler, who was a private attorney at that time and had flown in from New York a few days before, claiming to represent Martin Luther King. Kunstler arranged with Motley and the other lawyers that he would make the first argument. "First of all, Judge Tuttle, let me introduce Mrs. Motley," Motley remembers him saying in court later that morning. Tuttle then said, "Mr. Kunstler, Mrs. Motley has been here so often that she could be a member of the court." The question at hand–whether the injunction against King’s march was a preliminary one, and could be appealed–was a tricky point to argue. As Motley recalls it, Kunstler told Judge Tuttle, "Well, Mrs. Motley will argue that." With little preparation, Motley stood up and spoke. Tuttle overturned the injunction. "As I was walking out," she said, "who should be sitting in the front row but Martin Luther King!" Not long afterward, the Inc. Fund became King’s primary counsel.
The envelope of papers that Connie Motley keeps in her chambers includes a copy of a letter written by James Meredith on January 29, 1961, to Thurgood Marshall:
I am submitting an application for admission to the University of Mississippi. I am seeking entrance for the second semester which begins the 8th of February. I am anticipating encountering some type of difficulty with the various agencies here in the State which are against my gaining entrance into the school. . . . I am making this move in, what I consider, the interest of and for the benefit of (1) my country (2) my race (3) my family, and (4) myself.
Connie Motley is convinced that she was assigned the Meredith case because she was a woman. "Thurgood knew they treated black men a whole lot differently in Mississippi from the way they treated black women," she told Alfred Aman, the dean of the Indiana University—Bloomington School of Law, during an interview he conducted in 1988. "This is the last place in the world we wanted to hear from," she added, explaining that Marshall was worried about getting involved in Mississippi at that point, because the state seemed to be nearing an explosion, with Freedom Riders being arrested by the hundreds. By 1961, the Inc. Fund had grown to seven lawyers, and some of them were before the Supreme Court every couple of months. The office was already strained by its caseload, but Marshall knew that he had to make his last and best stand in Mississippi.
By then, Motley was well known in the Jackson federal court. She recalled that when she appeared to file her motion for Meredith, the judge, Sidney Mize, called to her from the bench, "Hi, Miz Motley!" "This was in the middle of another trial," she said. "He was very informal. When he took his recess, I told him I wanted to file my complaint against the University of Mississippi. Knowing there would be resistance, given the volatile situation in the state, he said to me, ‘Why did you have to come now?’ "
Motley was brisk with Meredith. She told him to get decent clothes and to shave his beard. He was a meticulous record keeper, Motley recalled. At one point, she subpoenaed his files from the university. The registrar, in an attempt to stall, said, "We didn’t bring the records," whereupon Meredith said, "I have a copy of everything I sent." Motley had a vivid memory of the moment: "They were floored. They had never expected that here was this student who would have a copy of all their correspondence!" One of the many tactics that were used to keep Meredith out of the university was to threaten to arrest him for having registered to vote in Jackson, where he had gone to college, rather than in his home town, Kosciusko. Immediately, Motley flew to New Orleans, where the court of appeals judge on Meredith’s case was sitting. "They are about to arrest Meredith," she told Judge John Minor Wisdom, and then suggested, "You could issue an injunction under the all-writs statute," a statute that permits a court to take whatever action is necessary to preserve its jurisdiction. Wisdom did so. Motley met Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., in New Orleans and, with him, drove straight to Jackson. "We got there at five minutes to six to prevent Meredith’s arrest," she recalled.
For months, the Justice Department avoided weighing in on Meredith, because the new Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, did not want a confrontation with Governor Ross Barnett. The litigation dragged on for a year and a half; Motley made twenty-two trips to Mississippi. For Joel Motley, then in grade school at Dalton, his mother’s travel was part of a great crusade. "There was no question in our house that history was being made," he told me. "One day during the Meredith trial, Burke Marshall"–an Assistant United States Attorney General–"called. I remember he told my mother that he wanted her to do X, Y, and Z. She hung up the phone on him. She told us that she was happy to have his help, but he wasn’t going to tell her how to run her case." On the day when Connie Motley decided that she would file a motion in federal district court to hold Governor Barnett in contempt, she drove to the Meridian, Mississippi, courthouse with Meredith and her secretary, in Medgar Evers’ car. "While we were driving," she recalled, "Meredith said to me, ‘Put those papers inside the Times. We are being followed. We don’t want them to know who you are.’ There we were, frightened to death, driving to Meridian. This occurred going through a wooded area. The state police just followed us all the way. They knew it was Medgar’s car, because they had been following him for years." (Within a year, of course, Evers was murdered.) "When we got to court, my secretary, in her haste, wrote ‘motion’ instead of ‘order.’ Judge Mize was presiding over the court, with Harold Cox, another judge, who was the most anti-black human being I ever met. Judge Cox looked at our document and threw it at us. He said, ‘Look at this, it says "motion"!’ Judge Mize put his hand on Judge Cox’s hand and said, ‘Judge Cox, it is all over.’ Mize was saying, in effect, ‘You are a federal judge. You cannot take sides.’ "
A few weeks before the fortieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, I went to Columbia to visit Jack Greenberg. Greenberg has been on sabbatical this year, finishing "Crusaders in the Courts," and I wondered whether the years he spent analyzing the Inc. Fund cases had given him a larger perspective on what he and Connie Motley and their colleagues accomplished. Greenberg, who is sixty-nine, is slightly built and appears younger than he is. I had noticed many black students on the campus; Greenberg recalled that when he entered Columbia Law School, in the nineteen-forties, there was only one black in his class and she was from the Virgin Islands. Greenberg talked about Thurgood Marshall and his legacy, and that conversation led inevitably to the subject of Clarence Thomas. Greenberg simply shook his head sadly, as if he could hardly tolerate the fact that Thomas had taken Marshall’s place on the bench.
I asked Greenberg about the many celebrations that I had been told he plans to speak at for the fortieth anniversary of Brown. He said, "I’ll tell you exactly," and pulled out a small calendar and read off a list: it included forums at Princeton, the College of William and Mary, and Texas Southern University, and an event that the Legal Defense Fund, which now has a staff of twenty-five lawyers, will hold in Washington on May 16th, at which the President will also speak. I told Greenberg about Connie Motley’s trip to Indiana and how she was confronted by B.L.S.A. members who seemed to be trying to hold the Inc. Fund responsible for the breakdown in the black communities.
"None of these things are simple," Greenberg said. "We can’t do anything about the pathologies of the ghetto: drugs, guns, single-parent households, and housing that has collapsed. But Brown has been an important factor in producing a large black middle class."
As Judge Motley and I arrived in Washington for Thurgood Marshall’s memorial service and walked through Union Station, she said, "When I first came to Washington, on that restrictive-covenants case, this was the only place Thurgood and I could eat." Motley and I had talked about some of her cases since she became a judge. In 1969, she had been vigorous in her decision to protect prisoners’ right to due process in the Sostre case; in 1978, it was her ruling that allowed women reporters to enter the locker rooms of professional sports. But she said that it was her time at the Legal Defense Fund that was "lasting and significant." She later remarked that she was annoyed when the Indiana law students expected her to be an architect of social policy. "We were trying to eke out a legal victory. If you want to win a legal case, you had to win a legal argument," she said. It was a warm day in November–freakishly warm–and Judge Motley decided to take a taxi the short distance to the Court. In the taxi, she again brought up the subject of what had happened to her in Indiana. "Don’t those students realize that they would not even be at Indiana if it weren’t for Thurgood Marshall and the Brown decision?" she said.
I was sitting in the front seat of the taxi, whose driver happened to be black. When he heard the name Thurgood Marshall, he suddenly became attentive. He looked carefully in the rearview mirror at the Judge. When we pulled up at the Supreme Court Building, it took Judge Motley a few moments to organize her papers in her briefcase and comb her hair. I noticed a sea of gray heads moving toward the entrance of the building, and she began to tell me which lawyer had helped with each case. The unpleasant questions posed by the Indiana students were forgotten. As we got out of the car, the taxi-driver asked her, "Ma’am, did you really know Thurgood Marshall?"
"Yes," she said matter-of-factly.
"My God," he said. ©


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