The Life and Legacy of Constance Baker Motley
Simone Yhap: The National Black Law Students Association, NBLSA, a national organization founded in 1968 with the purpose of increasing the number of culturally responsible Black and minority attorneys.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and you're listening to Simone Yhap. She's the immediate past national chair and CEO of the National Black Law Students Association. She's sharing part of a letter the organization sent to the Senate confirmation committee in support of Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Simone Yhap: Who excel academically, succeed professionally, and positively impact the community, strongly urges and calls for the swift, intentional, and deliberate confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme court.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That the emerging lawyers of the National Black Law Student Association were compelled to make their voices heard during this process is a sign of the intergenerational meaning of Jackson's nomination.
Speaker 1: On this vote, the yeas are 53, the nays are 47, and this nomination is confirmed.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Earlier this week, the Senate confirmed Judge Jackson's nomination, making her the newest associate justice and the first Black woman on the US Supreme Court.
Speaker 1: This nomination is confirmed.
Speaker 2: All right.
Speaker 3: Okay. Congratulations.
Melissa Harris-Perry: While the future is looking toward Justice Jackson, she took time during her opening statement of her confirmation hearings to acknowledge the past.
Ketanji Brown Jackson: I stand on the shoulders of so many who have come before me, including Judge Constance Baker Motley, who was the first African American woman to be appointed to the federal bench and with whom I share a birthday. Like Judge Motley, I have dedicated my career to ensuring that the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court building "Equal Justice Under Law" are a reality and not just an ideal.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This seemed like the right time to take a deep dive into the life and legacy of the woman on whose shoulders Justice Jackson says she stands, Constance Baker Motley.
Speaker 4: Do you, Constance Baker Motley, solemnly swear that you will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York and that you will faithfully discharge the duties of the Office of President of the Borough of Manhattan, of the City of New York, according to the best of your ability.
Constance Baker Motley: I do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now y'all know the deal. A deep dive means I'm joined by my friend, colleague, and deep-dive partner, Dorian Warren, who's co-president of Community Change and co-chair of the Economic Security Project. Dorian, thanks for being here.
Dorian Warren: Thanks, Melissa. It's always great to join the team here on The Takeaway. Today's deep dive it's just such a fascinating one because Constance Baker Motley is a towering figure in law, in politics, and in social justice. Born in 1921, the 9th of 12 children, Motley grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, living in the literal and figurative shadow of my graduate school alma mater, Yale University.
Now, as the child of working-class West Indian immigrant parents, she didn't have the financial resources to consider an Ivy League education, but because her father worked as a staff member in the university's eating clubs, he enjoyed an unequal yet intimate familiarity with the wealthy white men who attended Yale. Young Constance grew up with an insider's view into the elite institution, even as she was peeking in through the back door to get that view. As a girl, she harbored dreams of attending college and becoming a lawyer.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Which were pretty audacious dreams for a Black girl in the '20s and '30s.
Dorian Warren: I'm not sure she would've called herself audacious, but she had a strict upbringing that focused on excellence but also emphasized respect and rule-following. Back in 2002, Constance Baker Motley spoke with an oral history archival effort called the National Visionary Leaders Project. Here's what she had to say when asked if she had been a mischievous child.
Constance Baker Motley: Gee, that's hard to say because mischievous children were not permitted in our house. You were told to sit down and read a book or sit down and be quiet. That was it. My mother would say to us, "Wait till your father comes home."
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Maybe she followed the rules, but she also stood out from the crowd. Dorian, when she was just 18 years old, Constance Baker delivered a speech at the local African American social club. The club's sponsor was a wealthy white philanthropist named Clarence Blakeslee. He was so impressed by Constance he offered to pay for her college education. She started at Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee. That trip to campus was her first experience with the demeaning limitations of the Jim Crow South. Here again, she speaks at the National Visionary Leaders Project in 2002.
Constance Baker Motley: Well, I had to change trains in Cincinnati and get on a Jim Crow car. Well, I knew that was going to happen. Of course, everybody knew that happened to Black people. It's just that, when that happened to me, I did realize this is for real segregation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: She stayed for just over a year at Fisk, but then returned north and finished her college education graduating from NYU in 1943. Baker then enrolled at Columbia University School of Law. It was a moment when many young men were departing for World War II and by leaving, they opened space for women to be seated in law school classrooms for the first time.
Dorian Warren: Melissa, she was classmates with Bella Abzug, famous first in terms of New York City politics and gender. She preceded future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by over a decade. It was during this time at Columbia Law School that she met Thurgood Marshall. Here, again, is Motley speaking in the 2002 interview with the National Visionary Leaders Project.
Constance Baker Motley: Herman Taylor was there, a Black young man. One of his three jobs was clerking for Thurgood Marshall. When he got ready to graduate, he said to me, "Don't you want this job that I have?" the Thurgood Marshall. I said, "Oh, yes." He said, "Well, go on down and see him." Which I did and of course, that's how I got the job.
Melissa Harris-Perry: She's just so casual with it, like, "Oh, yes, I just popped on down and cut a job with Thurgood Marshall." Dorian, the [unintelligible 00:07:18] part is that this incredible story is barely even the first half of the first chapter of the life of Constance Baker Motley. What she then goes on to accomplish and who she becomes in the following decades. Well, those are the years and that is the story that makes her the giant who hoist Ketanji Brown Jackson onto her shoulders.
Dorian Warren: It's a story told with grace and insight by our guest Tomiko Brown-Nagin. She is Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a professor of law and professor of history at Harvard University, an author of Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality. Professor Brown-Nagin, welcome to The Takeaway.
Professor Brown-Nagin: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What were some of her first cases?
Professor Brown-Nagin: Constance Baker Motley's first trial case was in Jackson, Mississippi, where she argued on behalf of African American school teachers who were subject to pay disparities. No matter how experienced they were, no matter how qualified they were, the Black teachers were paid less than white ones. Motley shows up in Jackson with her colleague, Bob Carter. She appears in the courtroom and just causes a sensation both in the Black community and among whites. For Blacks, she was the Negro woman, lawyer from New York. She was nothing short of a savior who was coming to Jackson to challenge white supremacy.
As you can imagine for whites, she was quite transgressive, both of them were, to stand up in the courthouse and ask questions of white people. Asking them to defend their actions, to explain themselves. This is just never been done before. She created a stir and it was a start of a career where she continually challenged white supremacy. She was known as a great cross-examiner and the people she was cross-examining were members of the white power structure. There are many cases, including several in education that changed the legal architecture of this country for Ketanji Brown Jackson and so many of us.
Dorian Warren: It's four or five years later that Constance Baker Motley is the only woman on the legal team of Brown v Board of Education. Can you talk to us about what role she played in this historic case?
Professor Brown-Nagin: Well, in a real way, Brown versus Board of Education was her intellectual handiwork because she wrote the original complaint in the cases. Then she went on to conduct legal research for the briefs that were submitted by the [unintelligible 00:10:26] to the US Supreme Court and she also did quite a lot of grunt work. She was vital to Brown versus Board of Education. Although as I point out in my book, she did not argue one of the cases at the Supreme Court. It was quite a decision-making calculus for Thurgood Marshall to decide who argued.
Motley did not argue and the background for that decision, I believe lies in the reality that even as she was doing all of his work in support of Brown versus Board of Education, Motley was pregnant, she had her first child, and then she was a mother of a young son, doing everything that the men did, but also caring for her child, which just illustrates what a phenomenal person she was.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to us a bit about the fact that Baker Motley was the first Black woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court.
Professor Brown-Nagin: She was nervous the night before. After all, it's a big deal to appear before the justices. She was arguing for the principle that the criminal defendant in question was entitled to an attorney during arraignment. The case involved a classic and sad set-up from a Jim Crow South, where an African American man had been charged with ravishing a white woman and had not been entitled to very much of a defense at all. Motley ended up in her first oral argument before the Supreme Court, saving this person's life and so it was a tremendous moment for her.
The first of 10 appearances before the US Supreme Court, she won 9 of the cases that she argued before the justices. We just haven't heard very much about this before. Instead, we've heard about Ruth Bader Ginsburg's record at the Supreme Court, and certainly, we should have, but I would know that Motley argued more cases than Ginsburg, came before Ginsburg, and yet just hasn't gotten the recognition that she deserves. For that reason, I am delighted to send this book out into the world so that more Americans can know about the great Constance Baker Motley and her struggles.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor, can you tell us what led Motley to seek elected office?
Professor Brown-Nagin: Sure. Well, she sought elected office because Democrats in New York could see that she would be a great asset, and so a number of people came to her, asking her, inviting her to stand for Office. After all, she had name recognition because of her exploits in the courtroom on behalf of the [unintelligible 00:13:25]. She was one of the most famous lawyers in America after litigating the Meredith case, in particular, and so she was invited to stand for election to the New York Senate, the first Black woman to that body, and she went on to be asked to run for Manhattan Borough President, which was a big job, both symbolically important and substantively important because the Manhattan Borough President had a hand in shaping the budget of New York City.
She ended up prevailing, becoming Manhattan Borough President. She was the first woman to occupy that office. I should note that there were quite a few people who were not happy that she was elected, they thought that the civil rights lawyer should stay in her own lane. Some of the people who had this perception of her and her place included Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. This was in the context of the rise of Black Power, where Motley, to some, looked a little passé because, of course, she was a standard-bearer for integration, which many people were questioning as a path to Black empowerment by that time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk a little bit about her influence, but also specifically the gendered politics here, and really, how did Black male political leadership receive her in this role?
Professor Brown-Nagin: Leadership itself was coded male, was equated with being a man. This was true in the Black freedom struggle, no less than in wider society. To be a leader was to be a charismatic figure, to be owning the room, and Motley was not like that. She was more reserved. She was way lawyerly and she was a woman, and there were those who just had difficulty seeing her in such important roles. Yet, it was thought at the time by her backers that she might be the first Black mayor of New York City. Like it or not, she did pave the way for some of the figures who came after her.
It is notable that, as you mentioned, in this entirely different realm, she was able to make history and have impact. She overlapped with Shirley Chisholm in the New York legislature, by the way, they were great friends. The impact was for African Americans writ large, but also for women like Shirley Chisholm and also Bella Abzug, who becomes the first woman elected to Congress from New York.
Melissa Harris-Perry: She then makes yet another turn. She leaves politics, returned to law because she's nominated to the federal bench by President Johnson, who, of course, also nominated Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. Can you talk a bit about what kind of jurist she was? What were some of her accomplishments on the bench?
Professor Brown-Nagin: Sure. Well, when Motley was appointed to the bench, the civil rights and women's rights movements were delighted. They were ecstatic thinking having one of their own on the bench would result in the validation of the progressive claims of these movements. To an extent and in several cases, that idea was born out. Motley decided the case on behalf of Sports Journalist Melissa Ludtke, who was excluded from the clubhouse of New York Yankees during the World Series and sued, saying that that kind of sex discrimination was unconstitutional. She prevailed with Motley presiding in the case.
Motley didn't know anything about sports and wasn't really trying to find out a lot about sports, but she knew that the blanket exclusion of women from a profession was a violation of the law. She rolled in that case, it was very controversial, and a very important case. Another case that she rolled in was on behalf of Martin Sostre, who was a jailhouse lawyer, a Black Panther, a freedom fighter on behalf of incarcerated individuals, who sued when he was relegated to solitary confinement for months at a time. He asked for damages and Constance Baker Motley award them, saying that solitary confinement was cruel and unusual punishment
This was an amazing case, that was deeply controversial. Let's say, law enforcement was unfavorable as to Motley's ruling in this case, and it was brave of her to roll in that way. Then there were other cases where she didn't always validate the claims of the civil rights movement or the women's rights movement. This was largely because she was constrained as a trial court judge but also, there's a lot that goes into whether a plaintiff is able to prevail in a cas.o Motley was, as I say in the book, she was certainly a political liberal, but more of a judicial pragmatist.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right now, for both y'all, I feel like before we go any further, I should confess something, because I did let this book sit on my shelf for nearly two months before I started reading it because I just could not open it.
Dorian Warren: It is 500 pages long and weighs at least 5 pounds. I'm just saying, a lot-- a decade of work went into this book.
Melissa Harris-Perry: No doubt, but I will say I'm not afraid of a ginormous book, that wasn't it. It was actually because I thought the book might be a historical hit piece.
Dorian Warren: Why do you say that, Melissa? What makes you go there?
Professor Brown-Nagin: It's the title Civil Rights Queen. I just kept thinking of how describing a Black woman as a queen has typically been a slur in American politics.
Dorian Warren: For instance, Ronald Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign that introduced Linda Taylor, who would become known as the "welfare queen." Is that what you mean?
Speaker 5: Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record. She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, social security, veterans benefits for four non-existent deceased veterans' husbands as well as welfare.
Dorian Warren: While Linda Taylor was a real person, the massive defrauding of the American Welfare System by Black women is a wholesale myth.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Queen was deployed against the late Professor Lani Guinier in a very similar way. In 1993, president Bill Clinton had nominated Guinier to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of justice, but conservative thinkers offered these bad faith, misreadings of her academic writing and designated her a quota queen. President Clinton withdrew her nomination before she even had the opportunity to appear before the Senate Confirmation Committee. Let's listen to Professor Guinier speaking to the Today Show's Bryant Gumbel back in 1993.
Bryant Gumbel: What are you feeling this morning? I'm sure disappointment is a part of the equation, but are you feeling angry, betrayed, hurt, what?
Professor Lani Guinier: To tell you the truth, I'm feeling very tired, but in addition, very frustrated that in my case, the political process has not worked.
Dorian Warren: I hear you, Melissa, when you think of "welfare queen" or "quota queen," I kept fearing that one of the Republican senators badgering Jackson last month might go too far and refer to her as "child porn queen."
Melissa Harris-Perry: It felt implied. Though it's laughable, even impossible to imagine a Black woman actually reigning over something valuable and worthy. When I saw the title Civil Rights Queen, I cringed, but Professor Brown-Nagin text teaches us that civil rights queen was very much a term of reverence and respect. Professor Brown-Nagin who is still with us, will you help us to understand where that phrase came from? How did Motley come to be described as the civil rights queen?
Professor Brown-Nagin: It was definitely a term of honor. One that captured her singularity. A few people had seen a Black lawyer or a woman lawyer and Motley was this incredible combination of a Black woman lawyer. The title civil rights queen was given to her by a Black journalist was meant to evoke how she wielded the law as a sword of justice. She stood nearly six feet tall. She commanded the room. It is meant to be transgressive. Motley could have been the first Black woman appointed to the US Supreme Court. She was touted for that role, but she couldn't get there because her background as a civil rights lawyer was weaponized against her. Her race was, her gender was, I mean to both honor her, but also to call attention to her reality and I'm very much taking queen back from those who would denigrate Black women.
Dorian Warren: This is Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson speaking to her daughters during her Senate confirmation hearings in March.
Ketanji Brown Jackson: Girls, I know it has not been easy as I've tried to navigate the challenges of juggling my career and motherhood. I fully admit that I did not always get the balance right, but I hope that you've seen that with hard work, determination, and love, it can be done.
Dorian Warren: Melissa, I was thinking about you because I know that as a hardworking mama of two daughters, I just know you felt this moment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You know I did. Not just personally, it was fought with so much meaning not only for all working moms, but especially for Black mamas, because we faced such a long and bitter history of being maligned. Think of enslaved Black women who were treated as though they were just producing units for sale, or think of all the ways social and cultural messages suggest Black women's reproduction is rampant and irresponsible of the Black mama's force to submit to involuntary sterilization or pressured by public policy into using long-term birth control.
Dorian Warren: During our Takeaway deep dive about childbirth back in December, we talked with researchers who told us that Black women are nearly three times as likely as their white counterparts to die as a result of pregnancy complications so yes, Black motherhood is both personal and political.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Which of course brings us back to Constance Baker Motley who gave birth to her only son, Joel, in the midst of serving as the sole woman on the legal team that secured victory and Brown v Board of Education. What this means is that most of Motley's long career in law and politics was spent juggling both professional duties and the responsibilities of being partner to her husband and parent to her child. Professor Tamiko Brown-Nagin, our guest, hosted a conversation with Motley's son, Joel, during an event at Harvard Law School back in 2016. Here's a bit of how he remembered his mom.
Joel: She was very funny. She was fierce. She was a fighter and a very, very tough struggle, and so she had all of the sense of organization and mission that you find in anybody who's doing something really heavy and scary and she was very warm. She was a great mother. She was fun to be around and it all worked out.
Dorian Warren: Professor Brown-Nagin we heard Motley's adult son saying it all worked out, but talk to us about what were some of the challenges that Motley faced as a superstar professional and mother at the same time?
Professor Brown-Nagin: The challenges were that she had to, as a lawyer litigating cases across the country, she had to leave her child sometimes to do her job. I describe how one approach was to take the family with her, which resulted in one set of complications and another approach was to leave them behind. One would find her doing things like at the end of her trials, she would go to the office of the courthouse and ask to use the phone, and she would call back to her New York apartment and speak to her husband and her son.
She had to contend with how she was transgressing a mother's role. She had an uneasy relationship with traditional motherhood.
Then what about who actually was taking care of her child? Well, her husband Joel was a co-parent well before that was a thing. She also was vocal to women that if they could afford it, they should hire help. Yet, I will tell you that one of the things that was heartbreaking to me to discover about Motley was that towards the end of her life, when a journalist asked her what was her greatest achievement, she said it was her son who came out well, although his mother was often not at home. There's that sense of pride coupled with regret, the same sentiment that Jackson expressed during her opening statement.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Tamiko Brown-Nagin author of Civil Rights Queen, thank you for writing a book that brings us such a history and such a humanity. Thank you for joining us.
Professor Brown-Nagin: Thank you. I've been delighted to talk to you about my book.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Everybody, stick with us. We're continuing our deep dive next as we discuss the NAACP Legal Defense Fund with the woman who now leads the story organization where Motley began her career. This is The Takeaway.
Dorian Warren: This is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry from WNYC and PRX in collaboration with WGBH Radio in Boston.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're spending the hour discussing the life, legacy, and impact of Constance Baker Motley as we mark Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation to the Supreme Court. It was a moment too long in coming. Of all the people who've ever served as federal judges, fewer than 2% have been Black women. Think about that. The first of course was Constance Baker Motley, who was nominated to the bench by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966.
Dorian Warren: Early on in her career before that historic nomination, Motley was passed over for a different position of leadership. In 1961, President Kennedy nominated Thurgood Marshall to the US Court of Appeals in Manhattan. Marshall's departure meant leadership of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, better known as LDF would transition for the first time. Motley who'd been with LDF since finishing law school 15 years earlier was poised to assume the top spot.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Instead, Thurgood Marshall named Jack Greenberg as his successor. That said, for much of the last decade, the NAACP LDF has been a woman-led organization. Elaine Jones was at the helm from '93 to 2004, from 2013 until 2022, Sherrilyn Ifill set the course, and earlier this year, Janai Nelson became the LDF's eighth president and director-counsel marking the first time in the organization's history that the LDF leadership Baton was passed from one Black woman to another. Welcome to The Takeaway, President Janai Nelson, how are you?
Janai Nelson: I'm well thank you so much, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The women who are currently part of the LDF, do you all talk about Constance Baker Motley?
Janai Nelson: Absolutely. Constance Baker Motley is a North Star for so many of us at the Legal Defense Fund and not just women, all of our staff recognize the iconic and legendary trailblazing attorney that she was, and she continues to guide our thinking. She is just one of the many in the pantheon of excellent lawyers that Legal Defense Fund has produced.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Obviously, there is that pantheon. When you think about Motley, what is the key legacy that she left at LDF?
Janai Nelson: She was an amazing lawyer who was well trained, went to Columbia Law School, came from very humble beginnings. Grew up on the East Coast but connected so deeply with Southern communities and individuals in the South and young people in the South in particular. She represented students who were integrating schools both at the higher education level, and also students who were protesting against civil rights violations. Many people don't know that she was one of the primary architects of the legal strategy for LDF's seminal Brown versus Board of Education litigation, which ended state-sponsored segregation in public schools.
She litigated multitudes of cases including public accommodations cases, jury discrimination claims, she defended protesters, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy and Bernard Lafayette and Andy Young, so many of the prominent men of the movement. She also litigated voting rights cases, which is a little-known fact. She was just an all-around amazing lawyer who had a breadth and depth of expertise that you rarely, rarely see.
Dorian Warren: Janai, as you know, in the midst of this debate over critical race theory in public school classrooms it's brought to light the importance of telling, of course, the whole truth about our history. I do want to ask a question about LDF and Motley's time working for Thurgood Marshall, where she had to advocate for equity and pay and entitle and opportunity. Can you talk to us about how LDF contends with some of your own history relative to gender equity and particularly Constance Baker Motley?
Janai Nelson: LDF is just a product of its time and at the time in 1940, which is the year we were founded, we know that there was widespread gender inequity on issues of pay and on a number of issues. Over time, what we've done is to ensure that we created a workplace that is welcoming to all that has a generous parental leave policy, that engages in equity analysis. We've learned from our history, and we've certainly learned from the work that we do to advance racial equity and advance gender equity.
Many people are surprised when we say that one of the first Title VII cases that the Legal Defense Fund brought was on behalf of a white woman who was a mother and could not work because her employer said that she should be staying home taking care of her kids. Her name was Ida Phillips. We fought on her behalf to ensure that all women, regardless of race, have an opportunity to work in the workplace, even if they are parents, even if they are caregivers. That was just one of the fundamental building blocks of our employment discrimination dockets and it's something that we're quite proud of.
Dorian Warren: Last count, there are now 28 Black women law school deans, which is a record number. Do you have a message for young Black women who are studying law or just beginning their legal careers?
Janai Nelson: You look at the amazing contributions of Black jurists like Constance Baker Motley. We should take from that lesson the notion that you can shape this profession in powerful ways. That if you don't see yourself in a place you want to be, that's your opportunity to chart a path and to break that ceiling. It is just a beautiful thing to see so many leaders in the academy because they are the ones who are helping to shape the curriculum, helping to shape the practice ethos for a new generation of Black lawyers and of all lawyers. I look forward to seeing what their imprint might be on the profession at large. I think it's very encouraging.
Ketanji Brown Jackson's example is another one where she's the first. She had to believe that she could break that glass ceiling of race and gender and the intersection of the two at the highest court in our land, and she is poised to do just that.
Dorian Warren: Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, thank you for joining us here at The Takeaway.
Janai Nelson: Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Motley was well aware of her iconic status. Here she is 20 years ago speaking with the National Visionary Leadership Project.
Constance Baker Motley: I know that there are many young Blacks who view me as a role model. I am aware of that.
Speaker 6: You're glad about that.
Constance Baker Motley: Of course.
Dorian Warren: I'm sure Judge Motley would have loved our next guest.
Simone Yhap: My name is Simone Yap. I served as the 55th National Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the National Black Law Students Association.
Dorian Warren: Simone is an alum of Howard University, and she'll be graduating next month from Northeastern School of Law, where she served on law review. As the immediate past president of the National Black Law Student Association, she told us a bit about why the organization was founded back in 1968, a time when African Americans were just beginning to gain access to legal education.
Simone Yhap: Once we were allowed to, we knew that we needed to have an organization that could speak to our needs as well as advocate for us. That's how BLSA at first at NYU was formed and then transcended into a national organization with over 300 plus chapters, more than 6,000 plus active members, and a community of over 10,000 individuals.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, despite the significant gains in recent decades, according to data from the American Bar Association, Black students are still "consistently and dramatically underrepresented" in law school classrooms, which is part of the reason why the National Black Law Students Association's annual mock trial competition is named for Constance Baker Motley
Simone Yhap: Thinking about her autobiography that she wrote and really advocating for all people, but especially Black people. For our members who are current law students, especially Black law students, providing that venue for them to serve in her spirit and engage in her spirit. Be zealous advocates to analyze an issue at the highest legal level, and truly be a star but also, be confident in your skills, be confident in your knowledge and execute to the highest ability knowing that, yes, you're here and also be confident in the fact that you belong. You're meant to be here and you have the skills to be here.
Dorian Warren: You belong here. It seems obvious, but many Black law students find their experiences tell them something quite different. Here is third-year law student Brooklyn Crockton in a TikTok she posted back in March about what happened when she arrived at court to serve as a rule nine attorney representing an indigent client.
Brooklyn Crockton: He physically puts his body in between me and the door. He's like, "Please step to the side." I'm like, "Okay." I step to the side. He lets everyone else come in. He turns to me and goes, "What's your name?" He was like, "I don't have you here on the docket. Are you sure you're in the right courtroom? Are you the defendant?" I was like, "No, I am the attorney, actually." I have never been so embarrassed in my entire life.
Dorian Warren: Unfortunately, this is an experience that Simone Yhap can relate to far too well.
Simone Yhap: During my first year of law school, specifically the start of my second semester, I actually had the police called on me while I was studying at my law school. I think the most ironic part of that, the police were called on me as I was sitting in front of a Black Lives Matter poster that the school had hung up. It was your standard studying while Black. For me, I just found it to be crazy. Literally, in my law school, studying, applying for jobs at that very moment, I remember the exact firm that I was applying to for when I went all summer. They were just coming up accosting me, there were no cameras in the area. There were no witnesses and they were asking for my identification, followed me out.
They were watching me until I got in my car. For me, I was so flabbergasted. I was so stunned to experience that. It was a lot emotionally, physically, mentally, and still having to get acclimated to the hardship of law school. It is not easy. It is a different type of academic rigor that you have not experienced until you experience it. Also having to sit in classrooms where you're having your race debated over like it's the topic of the day and people not understanding different cultural nuances, and racial, and ethnic nuances as well but also economic and having to explain it every single day.
All of that combined, it's like, "Oh, my goodness, I feel like I'm about to lose my mind or lose my emotional sanity," because I'm going through all of these things and to have no support. I'm saying, "You know what? I don't need their support. I'm going to get through it regardless. Coming up with a strategy of how I'm going to address this issue, talk with my parents about it, and really thinking about, "You know what? How am I going to implement systemic change so that this does not happen to another Black law student again?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: Listen, these painful experiences of exclusion, they are part of the reason the National Black Law Student Association was determined to add its voice to calling for the full inclusion of Ketanji Brown Jackson on the nation's highest court.
Simone Yhap: We actually worked with Demand Justice to develop a Day of Action in Washington DC for Black law students across the nation to be in DC for this historical and monumental moment. We were organizing with them and what we did was have protests and also develop spaces for watch parties of the confirmation hearings of those panels of prolific attorneys but also advocates. While we were there, we actually had the opportunity to attend the confirmation hearings in person. I actually have the tickets framed because it's just such again a significant moment in our history.
Being in Washington DC during this moment meant so much to have Black women on the left and the right of me, to have our Black men there, and also those that are gender diverse there to be a part of this moment, and knowing that the glass ceilings, they're shattered and we're stepping literally all over these shards and we are here we are present.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Standing in the tradition of Constance Baker Motley and witnessing the confirmation of Justice Jackson. We ask Simone how she imagines change-making to be part of her career as a lawyer.
Simone Yhap: It starts from the moment I entered into this profession. How do I lift as I climb? How do I make sure that I'm consistently engaging in the essence of Sankofa, which is reaching back to pull forward? Really pouring into those that are coming up with me but also after me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For Simone, it's all part of manifesting her vision for a just and equitable world.
Simone Yhap: A just an equitable world would look like seeing Black people, period, in all of these places that we were systemically and institutionally kept out of, but also implementing positive long-lasting change and providing more opportunities. Seeing more Black people in partnership and partner roles at these major law firms, seeing more Black judges, and politicians, public defenders, and prosecutors, having a reduction of a carceral state, and having a reduction on the continuity of slavery-based policies. How do we make our society more accessible and equal and be loving and kind instead of, "Who can we get over on the next day, and who do we have to step over to get to this area?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm so excited to watch Simone Yhap become the kind of lawyer that would undoubtedly make Constance Baker Motley proud.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, Dorian, we've had another great deep dive and I always appreciate you being here with me on this. I feel like we learned all the things.
Dorian Warren: All the things, Melissa. It's so good as always to be with you right here on The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hey check out all of our Deep Dive segments. They're up at the takeaway.org/specialprojects. Thanks so much for spending time with us. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway.
[00:44:40] [END OF AUDIO]
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