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Fighting Segregation, One Trial at a Time

EQUAL JUSTICE . . . UNDER LAW: An Autobiography by Constance Baker Motley; Farrar, Straus & Giroux $25, 282 pages


Constance Baker Motley's modestly written memoir illuminates a crucial fragment of American history that is at risk of being outshone in the public memory by later, more dramatic events.

Motley, now a senior judge who is a former chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, presents in "Equal Justice . . . Under Law" the hard-slogging work of the handful of lawyers, mostly black like her, who, with the agreement of sympathetic white judges, began to dismantle the judicial framework for racial segregation in America in the 1950s.

The first shots in the long war were fired by the Legal Defense and Education Fund, founded by the NAACP in 1940. The fund was then the only force in the field. Its leader was Thurgood Marshall.

Into this then-small and little-known organization Motley, not yet married to the real estate man whose name she took, came as a Columbia Law School student in 1945.

She would go on to work for the fund on the Brown vs. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court in 1954 began to dismantle segregated public schools. She worked on numerous other cases that sought to desegregate the South, and along the way, she argued 10 cases before the Supreme Court. She was chief counsel to James Meredith in his long fight to enter the University of Mississippi and thereby desegregate Ole Miss.

After this career, Motley served a short time as Manhattan borough president, and then President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her a seat on the federal district court in New York. But the tale she tells of her early life is perhaps for modern readers the most interesting part of her story. For she speaks of an America so close in time, yet irrevocably distant in manners and morals.

Not that Motley is nostalgic. Now 76, she knows too well what the old America was like. After telling a story of being rudely condescended to by a young white elevator attendant in Manhattan just after she was named a federal judge (this was 1966!), she observes tartly, "There are people who long for the good old days. I do not."

Her own good old days were spent in New Haven, Conn., to which her mother and father had immigrated from Nevis in the West Indies. Her parents, fourth-generation Anglicans from the days of slavery, were part of the small group of West Indian immigrants in New Haven (many of whom worked as servants at Yale University) who looked down on American blacks. In her family, education was paramount, and excellence in deportment was expected.

She wanted to go to college, but there was no money. A rich, white New Haven contractor, Clarence W. Blakeslee, decided to finance her education after hearing the 19-year-old Motley speak out about the needs of New Haven's black community at a neighborhood meeting. He paid for her to go to Fisk, the Negro college in Nashville.

When she changed trains at Cincinnati, she encountered legal Jim Crow for the first time; south of the Ohio River, she had to ride in an "older and rustier" car that said "Colored." Segregation on the rails was sanctioned by the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson that approved the "separate but equal" formula which would last until Brown vs. Board of Education.

Her experience, including the railroad, was startlingly like that of another reserved New England black, W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois was sent to Fisk 55 years earlier on subscriptions raised by a Congregationalist preacher in Great Barrington, Mass.

If Motley stints her career as a politician and a judge in "Equal Justice," the reader gains by the insight she provides into the now-vanished world of her childhood and the sheer drudgery of the fund's attack on segregation. Its attack was narrowly focused on public education, the better to win agreement. Its leaders did not imagine the direct action of the later sit-ins and marches.

Nor did they, Motley says, have any idea about the extent of the social revolution that they had begun.

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