Thursday, September 29, 2005

Constance Baker Motley

As my civil rights seminar was watching "The Road to Brown" on Tuesday, I had to interrupt to point out Constance Baker Motley. She gets too little time in the documentary, considering the key role she had in writing the briefs in the case, and I wanted her to be noted. In 1966, Lyndon Johnson appointed her the first female African American federal judge. She was a distinguished alumna of Columbia Law School. She was still officially working--on senior status--as judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York when she died yesterday at the age of 84.

Obits in the Post and the Times outline her distinguished career with the NAACP. These stories offer a window, if a small one, into the treacherous southern landscape against which she, along with Thurgood Marshall and other dedicated civil rights lawyers, worked for justice.

The thing I wanted to point out to my class was a small, kind of oddball point. It comes out in a quote that, interestingly, shows up in the Post obit.

In 1962, she represented James H. Meredith in his arduous but ultimately successful battle to gain admission to the University of Mississippi. Marshall gave her the case, she said, because she was a woman. "Thurgood's theory was, in the South, they don't bother black women because they all have mammies," she once said.

As a young woman Motley was not fat--she did not fit the most exaggerated stereotype of the black mammy--but she was "full-bodied," which is how Lorraine Hansberry describes the character of Mama Lena Younger in her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959). That's the work we had read the week before. It's based on a case her father was involved in that challenged a race-based restrictive covenant, Hansberry v. Lee (1940). The play, as you might expect, doesn't sound at all like the legal opinion. One crucial difference is that in the play, it's the mother of the head of the family who carries the weight, in every sense.

Using Trudier Harris' reading of the play in Saints, Sinners, Saviors, I suggested that we consider Mama Lena as one of a long line of strong black female characters--written by black women--who both conform to and play against the stereotype of the old black mammy. Hansberry's choice seems to have been calculated as a way to turn a radical argument for racial equality into a palatable story about a figure every white person knows ("they all have mammies").

Mama Lena Younger is what she is: a strong but stereotyped figure for whom Hansberry was largely forgiven because of the contribution she made to the fantastic success of the play as a whole. It would certainly be wrong to confine Judge Motley to such an image. I'd rather remember her the way Jack Greenberg does:

"She was indomitable," said Jack Greenberg, who succeeded Marshall as director-counsel of the NAACP Legal and Education Fund and is now a professor at Columbia University School of Law. "She would take on a project like opening up the University of Mississippi and just keep coming back again and again and again. She was like Grant at Vicksburg. She just dug in there and stayed there until they rolled over."

She may have been calm and comforting like a mythical mammy, but what carried the day was stateliness and dignity, steadiness and smarts.

UPDATE: Kim Pearson, who comments below, finds it telling that the President made no mention of Motley's passing; he was too busy congratulating Chief Justice Roberts.

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