Equal Justice under Law: An Autobiography

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This wise and affecting memoir is the inside story of the great efforts leading up to the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the fight to implement it-and its implications for affirmative action and black poverty today.

A black woman who moved in the corridors of power in the middle of this century, Constance Baker Motley has been a pioneer in both black civil rights and women's rights. As the key attorney assisting Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP...

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This wise and affecting memoir is the inside story of the great efforts leading up to the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the fight to implement it-and its implications for affirmative action and black poverty today.

A black woman who moved in the corridors of power in the middle of this century, Constance Baker Motley has been a pioneer in both black civil rights and women's rights. As the key attorney assisting Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, she argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court (winning all but one), and her representation of James Meredith in his bid to enroll in the University of Mississippi made her famous. Subsequently, as Manhattan borough president and a U.S. district court judge, she has fulfilled the highest aspirations of our legal and political system.

This book, the most detailed account to date of the legal conflicts of the civil rights movement, is also an account of Motley's struggle, as a black woman, to succeed, a record of a life lived with great courage and responsibility.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"With the vision one would expect from a great advocate and premier judge, Constance Baker Motley has written a remarkable and insightful book. No person has done more in this century than Motley for racial and gender justice in this country."—A. Leon Higginbotham

"A story so powerful it shines."—Richard D. Kahlenburg, The New York Times Book Review

"Illuminates a crucial fragment of American history that is at risk of being outshone in the public memory by later, more dramatic events."—Anthony Day, Los Angeles Times

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Motley has a remarkable rsumchief judge of the New York Southern Federal District Court, and the first black female Manhattan Borough president and New York State senator. More remarkable was her 20-year service as civil rights lawyer alongside the legendary Thurgood Marshall as a member of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund. Key cases helped desegregate public schools and state universities, including the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. One of 12 children from a relatively poor New Haven family, Motley studied at Nashville's all-black Fisk University then at Columbia Law School. Her account of the early legal work that helped lay the foundations of the civil rights movement makes interesting reading despite excessive detail at times. In contrast, she writes frankly about Marshall's temper, her disdain for certain judges appointed by President Kennedy, tensions with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy after opposing his political wishes in New York politics and slights by the white legal establishment in New York City. Even more important are Motley's reflections on what's happening today to the principles around which she dedicated her career. She is critical of the current Supreme Court's stance on affirmative action and does not hide her contempt for Justice Clarence Thomas. She argues eloquently for government vigilance in monitoring the unfinished struggle against racial discrimination. Photos. Movie rights to Marcia Paul, Kay, Collyer and Boose. (July)
Library Journal
A 1994 New Yorker profile turned the spotlight on Motley, whose remarkable career had proceeded with little notice from the public at large. Appointed a federal judge in 1966, the first black woman to achieve that position, Motley had been a member of the winning legal team for Brown v. Board of Education and dozens of other key Civil Rights cases in the 1950s and early 1960s. A New Haven childhood, an education at Fisk University and Columbia Law School, and a spell of state and city politics in New York are the other components of her autobiography. As chief counsel for James Meredith in the integration of the University of Mississippi and as one who knew Thurgood Marshall, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and other giants, the author possessed splendid raw materials. Unfortunately, Motley's talent for memoir falls short of her gift for the law, and most readers will find themselves but sporadically engaged. Frequent stops to discuss legal points make her book suitable for law collections, and any women's studies or African American studies collection will be incomplete without it, but a better firsthand account of Civil Rights litigation for general readers is Jack Greenberg's Crusaders in the Courts (BasicBks., 1994).Robert F. Nardini, North Chichester, NH
Kirkus Reviews
Unfortunately, the impact of an autobiographer's writing style may not match that of his or her life. Insofar as that is the case here, however, it reflects Motley's amazing career (she is now a senior judge in US District Court for the Southern District of New York) as much as her colorless prose. Motley became a lawyer at a time when neither women nor blacks were especially welcome in the profession, and she worked with the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund at the outset of the civil rights movement, including laboring alongside Thurgood Marshall on Brown v. Board of Education. Her efforts in litigating civil rights cases included ten appearances before the Supreme Court. She briefly moved into politics and became the first black woman elected to the New York Senate and the first woman to serve as Manhattan borough president, then became the first woman appointed to the federal bench in New York. Indeed, the events themselves often carry the reader along; the drama of sitting on the speaker's platform with her son during Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech or tense moments on Mississippi roads with Medgar Evers matches that of any movie script. Tensions within the civil rights movement are also revealed when Motley discloses that she "thought he [Marshall] would have a stroke" when the advocate of moderate legal tactics learned of student sit-ins in 1960. She closes with a somewhat incongruous commentary regretting the dismantling of affirmative action and some uncharacteristically biting remarks about the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Motley considers Bush's action " the most cynical move made in the area of race relations since Plessy" that"dealt all of us black Americans a crushing societal setback in exchange for conservative votes." Not a great book in its own right, but certainly of interest for the student of the civil rights movement. (24 b&w photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374526184
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1 PBK ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 407,276
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Constance Baker Motley is a senior judge and a former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. She lives in Manhattan and Chester, Connecticut.

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Table of Contents

NEW HAVEN, 1921-41 9
Illustrations follow page 122
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First Chapter


NEW HAVEN, 1921-41

    IN JANUARY 1975, I BEGAN LEAFING THROUGH AN OLD BOOK THAT WAS KEPT UNDER LOCK AND KEY IN A SMALL WOODEN BOX WITH A GLASS TOP in the back of St. John's Anglican Church on Nevis, a tiny island in the eastern Caribbean. For the sake of tourists, the book had been opened to the recordation of the marriage of Lord Horatio Nelson, then stationed in Antigua, to the widow Frances Nisbet on March 11, 1787. Nevis has another claim to fame: Alexander Hamilton, first United States secretary of the treasury, was born there in 1755. I looked at every brown page of that timeworn document for evidence of my ancestral past. Both my parents were born and reared on that island. I was intrigued by a 1758 notation that reads: "John Huggins, mulatto, property of Miss Huggins, baptized." My mother was a Huggins. She had a brother, nephew, and great-nephew named John Huggins. A notorious Englishman, Edward Huggins, and his two brothers (according to the local Tourist Bureau literature) were major slave owners prior to 1833 and were undoubtedly responsible for the fact that many people on the island of Nevis and their descendants, both black and white, are surnamed Huggins.

    The rector at St. John's had stopped writing in the old church record book in 1826, when England required the rector of each parish to keep a systematic record of all christenings, marriages, and deaths and furnished printed record books for this purpose. It took about two hours, with the help of my husband and son, for me to leaf through the printed records from 1826 to 1934, the year my paternal grandmother died.

    Several former slaves and their descendants, as the printed church records disclose, took the surname Huggins on being baptized. The rector apparently insisted that the new Christian have a Christian name. Some of the former slaves, perhaps bewildered by this requirement, took the surname of the rector, Pemberton, who, in 1826, started baptizing slaves, as revealed by the column headed "Occupation." The newly baptized slaves and former slaves thus became Englishmen with black faces. The mulatto children of plantation-owner Englishmen in the eighteenth century who were baptized were also recorded as such. My mother's father, Alexander Huggins, was a mulatto. She had an older brother named Edward Huggins. She named one of my brothers Edward.

    In anticipation of freedom, in 1833--the start of the official four-year period of transition from slave to free man--the occupation of former slaves who were christened was recorded not as "slave" but as "apprentice." England's plan for ending slavery on this Caribbean island possession was to have the slaves work five days a week for the master, as usual, and two days a week for wages during the transition period so that they could learn how to become paid workmen. Earlier, the slave owners had been required to list, every three years, each slave by name so that if slavery ended the slave owner could be paid for the loss of his property. Each slave had been assigned an acre or less of land for growing his or her own food. The slave owners had decided that it was too expensive to import food to feed slaves. The sugar plantations were generally on low ground close to the Caribbean Sea. Nevis is otherwise very hilly, with a dormant volcano at its center called Nevis Peak, which Columbus reportedly spotted on his second voyage to the New World. Legend has it that the peak reminded him of one of the Swiss Alps, because it is usually enshrouded by white clouds, like snow, and so he called the island Nieves, meaning "snow" in Spanish. And, of course, when the British took the island from the French early in the eighteenth century, the British called it Nevis. According to some historians, England then removed the Jews from the neighboring island of St. Christopher (St. Kitts), where they had settled, to colonize Nevis.

    When slavery ended, much of the land on Nevis was owned by the Crown. Some former slaves abandoned their assigned lots and settled on crown lands, especially the hills. Consequently, the former slaves became, in practical effects, landowners living in their own quarters with their own mates and offspring. So the middle-class family structure and land ownership on Nevis began early. The population was predominantly black and mixed race. Most plantation owners left their lands and returned to England; only a few struggled on. Runaway slaves who had fled to live among the runaway Caribbean Indians in the hills largely remained there until water and electricity were made available in the villages nearer the sea in the middle of this century. The speech patterns of these isolated individuals was a mixture of Elizabethan English, African, and Indian languages, which has survived to this day.

    The ending of slavery coincided with the decline of the Caribbean Islands as the world's leading sugar-producing area. Nevis, which flourished because of sugar production in the eighteenth century, had ground to a poverty-stricken halt by 1837, the year slavery officially ended. That year, my grandfather Alexander Huggins was born and christened in St. John's (also known as Fig Tree Church because it is in an area then called Fig Tree and now called Church Ground). His mother, the records disclosed, was Ann Wyatt, all "apprentice," who was christened at St. John's as an adult the year before. She was sometimes known as Ann Weekes. There were no other Wyatts in the Church records. The parents of adults who were christened were not listed. My maternal great-grandmother apparently liked the surname Huggins for her firstborn, although, since he was mulatto, she may have given him the name of her former slaveholding English owner.

    We next discovered that Ann Brazier, my father's paternal great-grandmother, also an "apprentice," had been baptized at St. John's in 1833. She apparently had been a slave on Ann Brazier's estate, which lies behind the church in an area where my father was born in 1885. The name Brazier can be found among the early-nineteenth-century memorial plaques on the walls of the church. The name Thomas Woolward is also memorialized there. His daughter, Frances Nesbit, had married Lord Nelson in 1787.

    My grandfather Alexander Huggins married Jane Ann Woolward in St. John's in 1864. They had twelve children, all of whom were baptized in St. John's except the youngest, my mother, Rachel Keziah Huggins, who was baptized in the Methodist chapel at Brown Hill in 1887. The reason for this aberration was that my mother's mother had been baptized in the newly constructed Methodist church in Charlestown, Nevis, in 1845. (The stone building is still standing; in 1994, the church celebrated its 150th anniversary.) Jane's parents were Methodists, Thomas and Cecilia Woolward of Clark's estate. It appears, however, that Thomas Woolward was first baptized at St. John's as an adult on March 1, 1839. My mother attended the Methodist chapel in Brown Hill with her mother until it burned down about 1897. Her baptism is recorded in the separate record for that chapel. She and her mother then returned to St. John's, which her father steadfastly had refused to leave on the ground that all of his forebears had been members of that particular Anglican church. My mother's mother had a brother or other male relative who was in charge of the chapel at Brown Hill--which probably explains her desire to attend that chapel. It was also much nearer, by at least three miles, to my grandmother's Brown Hill home than St. John's. The Methodists originally were tormented on the island of Nevis because of their early opposition to slavery, which accounts for their ability to recruit former slaves in a land overrun by Anglicans. There are five Anglican churches on Nevis, all built of stone and with slave labor. Some, like St. John's, claim dates in the 1600s.

    My grandfather was a prominent citizen and church member. My mother told me that he often was selected to serve on juries, an indication of his standing in the community. He had a two-story house that he had built himself, according to my mother's cousin Sarah Pinney, on a low hill overlooking the Caribbean Sea. A few of the stories from the foundation remain. The house was built on land on which my grandmother had settled after slavery. At the time of her christening in 1836, she listed her abode as Low Ground, an area just below my grandfather's house but considerably nearer to the sea. It is still so designated. My grandfather may have been a carpenter or builder. When parishioners were required to pay dues for their church pews, my grandfather, who was older and poorer by then, made himself a small wooden bench, which he placed in the rear of the church and dared anyone to move. It was there undisturbed, like everything else in Nevis, until 1976, when eighty of its returned for a Huggins family reunion. My grandfather was, in any event, a laborer who did many things, as most island men did. When he was older, he injured his leg, which confined him to making lobster traps for fishermen at home, a trade that still goes on in the new Nevis. He died in 1917, at the age of eighty, and was buried in the churchyard at St. John's. Jane died seven years before him and was also buried there.

    Ann Brazier's son, Abel Zephania Baker, named his son Moulton Zephania Baker. The surname Baker is also found among the 1829 memorial plaques on the walls of St. John's, which may explain why Ann Brazier gave her son this surname. There were some other nonwhite Bakers among the parishioners at St. John's and among the Methodists in Charlestown, but our relationship to them is not clear. Bertram Baker, for example, the first black in the New York State Assembly from Brooklyn, was born in Nevis. His wife, Irene, whose maiden name was also Baker, was born in Brooklyn. Her father was a well-known Methodist minister in Brooklyn and Nevis. He also operated a small store in Charlestown that sold items for schoolchildren. Many Nevisian elders remember him well for this reason.

    My paternal grandparents, Moulton Zephania Baker and Isabella Watley, were married in St. John's in 1884. They were about twenty years younger than Alexander and Jane Huggins. Their eldest son, Willoughby Alva Baker, my father, was christened in September 1885. Isabella Watley's mother was Mary Ann Tyson. (The father of the actress Cicely Tyson is a member of the same clan.) Isabella's father was a white man, George Watley. She, however, looked like a Caribbean Indian--short, moonfaced, with long black hair to her waist--as we can see from the only photo of a forebear in the family annals. She lived next door to St. John's Church most of her life and died in Nevis in 1934. A part of her house is still standing.

    My father had a brother, Joseph Addington Baker, and two sisters, Sadie Nellie Bell and Anna Virginia, all of whom migrated to New Haven with my father's financial help. With the aid of both brothers, Virginia attended Commercial High School after her arrival in 1924 at age fourteen. She graduated about 1928. She lived with her sister, Nellie, until she joined the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1942. Aunt Nellie had married Samuel Paris, a Nevisian, and had two children, Doris and Calvin. Uncle Joe also had two children. Pearl and Ruby.

    Of my mother's eleven brothers and sisters, two brothers, Edward and John, came to America. Edward, who had worked on board vessels traveling between New York and various Caribbean Islands, settled in New York, about 1902, where he got a job as a construction worker. He then moved to New Haven in 1905, following the advice of some Yale students he had met in the theater district of New York who told him about the availability of easier service jobs there. John Huggins went to New Haven in the early 1920s, stayed for a while, and then settled in Boston. He went on to father twenty-two children. He and his wife died in their forties. Their eldest son, Harvey, is still living in California, age eighty-five.

    One sister, Dorcas, came to the States in the early 1920s also but claimed she could not stand the cold and returned on the next boat back to the family home on Brown Hill in Nevis, where I now have a home.

    My mother's brother Edward was followed to New Haven by one of his friends, my father, in 1906. My mother, having somehow accumulated the twenty-five-dollar steerage-class fare, came the next year. She and my father were married that October in St. Luke's Episcopal Church, a newly constructed brick edifice on Whalley Avenue. I was the ninth of their twelve children, three of whom died in infancy before I was born in 1921. My father's first job was as a dishwasher at the New Haven House (a hotel on Chapel Street opposite Yale) for nine dollars a week. He escaped the draft for World War I, since, when called, he was in the New Haven Hospital with pleurisy.

    My uncle Edward, who had established himself in New Haven with the aid of Charles Mills (the first Brown Hill Nevisian to come to New Haven, in 1902), sent first for his Nevisian wife, Meloria Gilfiland, then his four children, John, Arlene, Josephine, and Ernest. He returned fairly regularly to Nevis until the early 1930s, when he brought back his second wife, Edna Sampson. (His first wife, had died about 1918.)

    Ed had Secured employment as steward of the University Club at Yale about 1915. He remained steward until about 1940, when it closed. Then, he moved to the new fraternity row on York Street and became steward of Zeta Psi Fraternity House, where he remained until 1946. He died in 1948 at age sixty-seven. The fraternity house closed in his honor the day of the funeral, the largest I had ever seen. John, following in his father's footsteps, became, sometime in the early 1930s, steward of the Fence Club at Yale, where he remained for fifty-two years. When I was growing up, all of my male relatives seemed to work at one Yale eating club or another.

    My parents, as well as the others who migrated from Nevis, had the good fortune of learning to read and write, add and subtract in what were known as the English Standard Schools. They also learned a trade. In Nevis, my father was a cobbler, and my mother was a seamstress. She also taught very young children for a year or two before coming to America. My parents' education was probably equivalent to the tenth grade in the States at that time.

    I grew up in a lower-middle-class household, where my father was head of the house. Generally, West Indian men (particularly those from the British islands) wanted to demonstrate, always, that they, were as capable as any man. They considered themselves superior to the average American Negro because of their education in the English Standard Schools. My father never discussed race relations as such, but he always expressed his views on black Americans, who he thought were generally lazy, no good, undisciplined, and lacking middle-class values. (He had the same myopic view of American blacks as most whites.) The few friends he brought home from work were either white or West Indian, preferably Nevisian, with a lifestyle closer to his own: "hardworking, law-abiding, self-respecting" people, who appeared in public with white shirts, starched collars, ties, and jackets. My father always expected to find the parlor straightened up and ready for company. When he came home to rest for a couple of hours during the day, we children had to be as quiet as church mice.

    I was born in a three-family house on Day Street near the corner of Chapel. Our apartment was on the third floor and included two attic rooms and a hall room. Although blacks were only 2 percent of the population, the neighborhood was quite thoroughly integrated. The grammar school was two short blocks away. We seemed to have no more and no less than everyone else. There was beautiful Edgewood Park with a playground nearby. There were two beaches--one at Lighthouse Point and the other at Savin Rock with its amusement park. Fear and racial conflict were simply not a part of the landscape.

    Just as my father kept his distance from working-class American blacks, established middle-class blacks shunned the newly arrived West Indians. As a result, my parents' friends were largely other West Indians. My father had a friend, Henry Williams, who claimed he was born in Cuba. He later changed his name to Henry Enrique, so he may have been a white Hispanic, but he apparently had some black blood. His wife was from Jamaica, where she would have been known as a White Jamaican; she had very fair skin and reddish-brown hair. I suspect that Williams was also a White Jamaican. In Jamaica, White Jamaicans were royalty; in America, they were largely members of the servant class like most other immigrants. White Jamaicans were whites who knew they had black ancestors. White Cubans, on the other hand, were white descendants of the Spaniards. Williams may have sought to take advantage of this subtlety. When necessary, this couple passed for white. They stayed completely away from black Americans. They visited with the few Jamaicans around who were also of mixed race. They lived on Gill Street in the block behind us, which, at the time, was all white. (Some whites would not [Illegible] to blacks.) Williams worked as a chef like my father. He was one of the few people my father considered a personal friend, somebody who would drop by uninvited for conversation and usually for drinking. Their European backgrounds made these two friends ineligible for membership in the Christian Temperance Union. The Williamses' only son grew up without siblings or cousins. After World War II and college, he married a white woman and left New Haven, like several other young men who were similarly of mixed racial background. Williams claimed he had been raised as a Roman Catholic in Cuba, but later he became staunchly anti-Catholic, anti-religious. He occasionally had gone to St. Luke's Episcopal Church at his wife's urging, but in the end, he did not go to Church at all. He was a man who struggled constantly with his racial and ethnic identity. There were times when we did not see him for months. He eventually became ill and committed suicide by hanging. His self-imposed deeply restricted life in the shadows apparently drove him insane. I have since wondered how many others who straddled both worlds also went insane. At the very least, they all lived stress-filled lives.

    I learned from my father's constant debates with Williams that my father was fourth-generation Anglican and had been the sexton of his church in Nevis, as was his father before him and his younger brother after him, though he was basically not a churchgoer. However, he always went to church on Easter. One of my earliest recollections of my father is of an Easter Sunday when my sister Eunice and I went to church with him. I was six years old, maybe seven. This particular Easter Sunday, my mother stayed home with three younger children. My father aided her by combing our hair and helping us get dressed. My mother had made our dresses and coats, and we had new patent-leather shoes, which my oldest sister, Olive, had bought us. My father went to church wearing a high silk hat, a cutaway coat, and striped pants, the way, apparently, the British in Nevis dressed on Easter Sunday. The Nevisians were simply more British than the British. We got to church late and had to walk down the center aisle and sit in the front row. There we were, Eunice and I, trailing behind our proud West Indian father.

    My mother was a tolerant, peace-seeking person, who did not have strong views on race and never disparaged any ethnic group. She understood well America's basic creed of equality. When all of her children had finally grown up, my mother felt free to go to church, as my father said, "every time the church door opens." In New Haven, the church was not only the house of God but the center for social intercourse. My mother became very active in the Woman's Auxiliary and United Churchwomen, a statewide group of Episcopalian woman. In 1936, she became the first woman elected to an Episcopal Church vestry. My father, on the other hand, did not belong to any church groups. Men generally did not participate in church in the same way women did. The men (no women) acted as acolytes and sang with the women in the choir, but my father did none of, those. He could not sing or chose not to. (I guess that explains why I cannot sing and why I got all F in Music in the third grade. I was deeply shaken by this. I was finally put out of the church choir.)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2005

    Great History Book

    Constance Baker Motley was not only a leader for civil rights, legal rights and human rights, she also gave me insight about the Grandfather I never knew. Justice Motley was graceful, eloquent, intelligent, poised, regal. I will cherish the time I spent with her.

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