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Tomiko Brown-Nagin

  • New Harvard Law banners hanging on Langdell Hall

    Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery

    April 28, 2022

    A report issued by the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery recounts the many ways Harvard University participated in, and profited from, slavery. Harvard leaders and scholars examine the report and its implications for the future.

  • Harvard Law School unveils memorial honoring enslaved people who enabled its founding

    Understanding the legacy of slavery

    April 28, 2022

    Following the release of a report by the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, Harvard Law Dean John F. Manning has announced initiatives to honor the enslaved people whose labor generated wealth that contributed to Harvard Law School’s founding.

  • After revealing hard truths, Harvard’s next tough task: Defining reparations

    April 28, 2022

    Harvard University is publicly facing some brutally hard truths. A massive report, years in the making, was released this week detailing the institution’s ties to and enrichment from the enslavement of Black people. It’s full of gut-wrenching details, from the more than 70 human beings who were owned by faculty, staff, and even presidents of the university, to the remains of 15 Black people from the antebellum era found among the holdings of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, to the fact that a third of the university’s endowment from the first half of the 19th century came from donors whose fortunes were fueled by the slave trade. ... “It will bring us closer together as a community, and create deeper bonds among us,” [Tomiko Brown-Nagin] said. “I do know, obviously there are some very difficult things in the report.” But, she added, it’s also vital to note the immeasurable contributions Black and brown alumni have made to the university, Boston, and the world. “It’s important to me — I’m a civil rights historian — to have that be a theme of the report, because it’s a way of truth-telling as well, and ensuring that a broader array of graduates and individuals and communities represent Harvard,” Brown-Nagin said.

  • Harvard Details Its Ties to Slavery and Its Plans for Redress

    April 27, 2022

    In one column are the names of more than 70 enslaved people at Harvard: Venus, Juba, Cesar, Cicely. They are only first names, or sometimes no name at all — “the Moor” or “a little boy” — of people and stories that have been all but forgotten. In another column are the names of the ministers and presidents and donors of Harvard who enslaved them in the 17th and 18th centuries: Increase Mather, Gov. John Winthrop, William Brattle. These full names are so powerful and revered they still adorn buildings today. The contrasting lists are arguably the most poignant part of a 134-page report on Harvard University’s four centuries of ties to slavery and its legacy. ... Reparations “means different things to different people, so fixating on that term, I think, can be counterproductive,” Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the committee chair, a professor of both law and history, and dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, said in an interview.

  • Dual message of slavery probe: Harvard’s ties inseparable from rise, and now University must act

    April 27, 2022

    A new report shows that Harvard’s ties to slavery were transformative in the University’s rise to global prominence, and included enslaved individuals on campus, funding from donors engaged in the slave trade, and intellectual leadership that obstructed efforts to achieve racial equality. The report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, released Tuesday, describes a history that began with a Colonial-era embrace of slavery that saw 79 people enslaved by Harvard presidents and other leaders, faculty, and staff. The report offers a series of recommendations — already accepted by Harvard President Larry Bacow — that amounts to a reckoning with the University’s history. A $100 million fund established by the Harvard Corporation to implement the recommendations includes resources for current use and to establish an endowment to sustain the work in perpetuity. ... “The committee thought that it was important to lay bare the difficult aspects of Harvard’s history, but also speak to the resistance that is very much a part of Harvard’s legacy,” [Tomiko] Brown-Nagin said. “I am aware that the history we trace in this report is deeply troubling. But it would be a great disservice to our community if the only message that we took away was one of shame. We must acknowledge the harm that Harvard has done. But it is also important that we do not — as has been done in the past — bury stories of Black resistance, excellence, and leadership. These women and men are also part of our history — also part of our legacy.”

  • Revealing webs of inequities rooted in slavery, woven over centuries

    April 26, 2022

    A report issued Tuesday by a committee appointed by Harvard President Larry Bacow and led by legal scholar and historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin details the University’s deep connections to slavery in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and to legacies of slavery well into the 20th century. It also illuminates how those ties “powerfully shaped Harvard” and suggests a range of actions the University can take to help “ameliorate the persistent educational and social harms that human bondage caused to descendants, to the campus community, and to surrounding cities, the Commonwealth, and the nation.” Harvard has pledged to provide long-term funding to address the initiative’s findings. The Gazette spoke with Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, about the report and the path forward. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

  • Why Ketanji Brown Jackson and Kamala Harris idolize civil rights lawyers like Constance Baker Motley

    April 11, 2022

    As Kamala Harris made history in her speech accepting the vice presidential nomination in 2020, she broke into a broad grin as she invoked the name of her hero: Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge. Eighteen months later, Motley’s memory was summoned again, this time by Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson upon her nomination to the Supreme Court. ... “It tells me she knows her history — the history of the civil rights movement,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a Harvard Law professor and author of “Civil Rights Queen,” a newly released biography of Motley.

  • Ketanji Brown Jackson is the beginning, not the end, of this story

    April 7, 2022

    An op-ed by Tomiko Brown-NaginDespite the toxic partisan politics displayed during the confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson last month, her likely ascension to the US Supreme Court – as an eminently qualified jurist and the first African American woman justice – marks a profound and positive change in the nation’s history. In 2022, we are closer than ever to the aspiration of equal protection promised in the US Constitution and our laws, even as race and gender inequities endure in many areas of American life. This is a moment worthy of celebration. But it also invites reflection on how individual success relates to the ideal of opportunity for all.  

  • A Culinary Journey

    March 29, 2022

    Cooking Practices “can open a window into the lives of enslaved people and help us understand slavery and its legacies,” said Radcliffe Institute dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin on Thursday, introducing a talk by chef and culinary historian Michael Twitty on the intertwined history of slavery and American foodways. The event was part of the initiative on Harvard’s ties to slavery, launched by President Lawrence Bacow in 2019 and headed by Brown-Nagin. The initiative’s faculty committee will be releasing a report of its findings and recommendations next month.

  • Examining 2 days of Senate confirmation hearings for Biden’s Supreme Court nominee

    March 23, 2022

    NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute, about Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson's judicial philosophy.

  • 5 books to read this March, according to bestselling author Jasmine Guillory

    March 3, 2022

    Now that we have entered March, warm weather is right around the corner, which means you might be building a long list of books to read outside for when the sun and heat arrive. Whether you have spring break plans that involve reading on the beach or are itching to start a new book, we have recommendations for all kinds of readers. ... Best Women’s History Month read “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” by Tomiko Brown-Nagin “This book is a fascinating and incredibly readable biography of a woman who shaped so much of civil rights history, and whose story is not told nearly enough,” Guillory said. “I was totally absorbed while reading this and learned so much!”

  • Jackson’s Selection Parallels First Black Woman U.S. Judge (1)

    March 1, 2022

    Ketanji Brown Jackson closed her remarks at the White House ceremony for her Supreme Court nomination by paying tribute to Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman federal judge in U.S. history. Jackson, 51, who would make history as the Supreme Court’s first Black woman justice, noted she and Motley share a coincidental connection: They were born the same day 49 years apart. ... “One can see perhaps a parallel in the way that some are criticizing Judge Jackson’s career as a public defender–-or really her two-year stint as a public defender–-somehow implying that she is not suited to the judiciary because of that experience representing criminal defendants,” said [Tomiko] Brown-Nagin, who is dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

  • Ketanji Brown Jackson Is The First Black Woman Nominated To The Supreme Court

    February 28, 2022

    Ketanji Brown Jackson's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court fulfills a promise President Biden made while running for office: to nominate the first Black woman for the highest court. Critics said he was prioritizing identity over qualifications, but many have praised Jackson for being well equipped for what could be a historic appointment. Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, wrote a book about the first Black woman to ever become a federal judge, Constance Baker Motley. She explains how that, and much more, paved the way for this nomination.

  • In the Footsteps of Constance Motley Brown, Supreme Court Pick Ketanji Brown Jackson Makes History

    February 28, 2022

    President Biden on Friday nominated federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court to fill Justice Stephen Breyer’s pending vacancy. If confirmed, she would be the first Black woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice. We speak with Harvard constitutional law professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin about the nomination of the 51-year-old federal judge and the parallels between her and the first Black woman federal judge and civil rights legal icon Constance Baker Motley, who was at one point eyed for a Supreme Court nomination.

  • A Black lawyer who dismantled barriers, for herself and many others

    February 25, 2022

    From 1946 to the 1960s, Constance Baker Motley was the sole woman on the small team of lawyers waging an insurgent challenge to the South’s racial caste system and laying the foundation for the civil rights revolution that transformed American life. The first Black woman appointed to a federal judgeship, in 1966, Motley’s rulings advanced the rights of women, gays and lesbians, prisoners, and the homeless. In “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” Tomiko Brown-Nagin recovers the story of this pioneering lawyer and jurist and invites a fresh consideration of the civil rights movement and the nature of its achievements.

  • ‘Civil Rights Queen’ examines the legacy of Constance Baker Motley

    February 18, 2022

    As President Biden prepares to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, we revisit another historic first. Constance Baker Motley was the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary and the first to argue before the Supreme Court. Harvard law professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin joins Nicole Ellis to discuss her new book on Motley's life and legacy called, "Civil Rights Queen."

  • Often overlooked, civil rights advocate Constance Baker Motley gets her due

    February 17, 2022

    In Civil Rights Queen, author Tomiko Brown-Nagin profiles Motley, a Black woman who wrote the original complaint in Brown v. The Board of Education and was on Martin Luther King's legal team.

  • Zoom screen with three women and one man

    Constance Baker Motley

    February 15, 2022

    Georgetown Law Professor Sheryll Cashin ’89 once asked her mentor, Thurgood Marshall, why he had passed over Constance Baker Motley to succeed him when he…

  • In Supreme Court Nomination Debate, Echoes of Past Judicial Breakthrough

    February 11, 2022

    When President Biden announced that he would nominate a Black woman—the Supreme Court's first—to the seat that will be vacated by retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, criticism from some on the right began almost immediately. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said it was "racist" to consider only Black women for the post, and Biden's decision was "insulting to African-American women." The conversation about identity and qualifications echoes some of the questions that arose when another breakthrough appointment was announced more than 50 years ago. ... Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute, and author of Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle For Equality, discusses Motley's nomination and her career. She says Motley supported the appointment of women and people of color to the federal judiciary as a way to strengthen the institution.

  • Transcript: Race in America: History Matters with Tomiko Brown-Nagin

    February 11, 2022

    MS. COLVIN: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Rhonda Colvin, one of our Capitol Hill reporters. And today we're speaking with Tomiko Brown‑Nagin. She just authored a book on Constance Baker Motley, and the title of that book is "Civil Rights Queen:"‑‑the story of‑‑"Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality." And this is part of our series and the contribution that Black women have made to American history. So we thank you, Tomiko, for joining us today. MS. BROWN‑NAGIN: Thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be here.

  • A Black woman on the High Court is a good start. But representation has limits.

    February 10, 2022

    The history of Black women and the law is, until relatively recently, "a history of impressive firsts," according to Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and a professor of law and history at Harvard. There's Charlotte Ray, the first Black woman lawyer and a graduate of Howard law school. There's Jane Bolin, the first Black woman judge in the United States. There's Pauli Murray, who coined the term Jane Crow, and whose legal arguments laid the groundwork for desegregating public schools and extending the rights of women and LGQTB people. Murray was the first Black person to earn a JSD from Yale Law, and the first Black person perceived as a woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest.

  • Black women in the legal profession reflect on how long it’s taken to get this far

    February 8, 2022

    ARI SHAPIRO, HOST: President Biden has promised to nominate a Black woman to fill retiring Justice Stephen Breyer's seat on the Supreme Court. That historic first has Black women in the legal profession reflecting on how long it's taken to get this far. NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports. ... TOMIKO BROWN-NAGIN: If we can get to a point where it's not so significant that a Black woman is appointed to some prestigious position, then we will have come closer to the dream of equality that so many civil rights activists and lawyers fought for for so many years.

  • Jane Goodall on surviving trying times

    February 7, 2022

    Jane Goodall, the renowned naturalist who revolutionized views of animal behavior with her 60-year study of chimps, has turned her attention to a unique aspect of human nature: hope. ... What books are you recommending for Black History Month? “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” by Tomiko Brown-Nagin. “A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.,” edited by James M. Washington. “México’s Nobodies: The Cultural Legacy of the Soldadera and Afro-Mexican Women,” by B. Christine Arce.

  • The life of a ‘Civil Rights Queen’

    February 3, 2022

    In the 1940s and 50s, when Constance Baker Motley walked into a courtroom in the Deep South to try a case, people stared. And then they stared some more. For one thing, women lawyers were pretty rare at that time. For another, it was a safe bet that no one—regardless of race—had ever seen a Negro woman lawyer, let alone one with such imposing height and regal carriage. Add to that the fact that Motley was always impeccably turned out in a well-cut dress, high heels and a matching handbag, and often draped in her signature pearl necklace. She was, quite simply, a unicorn—one battling (genteely, but insistently) for civil rights. The arc of Motley's life—as a lawyer, as a politician and eventually as the first Black woman to be appointed to the Federal bench – is outlined in a new biography, Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality. The author, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, is a history professor at Harvard University and dean of Radcliffe's School of Advanced Study. She also teaches at Harvard Law School. Motley, she says, is a heroine to her – but one whose legacy often gets overlooked in the broader world.

  • Opinion: What the next justice will owe Constance Baker Motley

    February 3, 2022

    You have probably read about the controversy surrounding Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign promise to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court. Though it delighted many people at the time, it has a few others upset now that a vacancy on the high court has materialized. ... She was the only female lawyer at the Fund for 15 years. During her employment interview in 1945 with then Legal Defense Fund boss Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice asked her to climb a ladder next to a bookshelf. “He wanted to inspect her legs and feminine form,” writes Tomiko Brown-Nagin in her compelling and readable new biography of Motley, “Civil Rights Queen.” When Marshall stepped down to become a judge in 1961, he passed over Motley and picked a less experienced White man as his successor.

  • The ‘double-edged sword’ of being a Black first

    February 2, 2022

    It's Black History Month, which is likely to bring boundless stories of Black Excellence and Black Firsts. So today on the show, we're talking about Constance Baker Motley — a trailblazing civil rights judge who ruled in some landmark cases and helped pave the way for many to come after her (including, perhaps, the next Supreme Court justice?) But, as we learned, Motley's life was full of contradictions, and her many achievements also came with many costs. On this episode, we spoke to Tomiko Brown-Nagin, author of Civil Rights Queen, the new biography about Constance Baker Motley. Motley was the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge and the first Black woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

  • Washington Post Live “Race in America” series to spotlight pioneering Black women during Black History Month

    February 2, 2022

    Washington Post Live today announced the “Race in America: History Matters” series will spotlight the contributions of Black women throughout American history this February. The upcoming conversations marking Black History Month will highlight Ida B. Wells, Mamie Till-Mobley and Judge Constance Baker Motley, among others. ... The series will feature Michelle Duster, historian and great granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, Deborah Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, and Tomiko Brown-Nagin, author of the new book “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality.” Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, will also share her reflections connecting the past and the present.

  • Charting the path of a ‘Civil Rights Queen’

    February 1, 2022

    In her new book, “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” Radcliffe Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin shines a light on a lesser-known, yet central player in the Civil Rights Movement and women’s rights pioneer. The daughter of working-class immigrants, Motley attended Columbia Law School, argued several cases before the Supreme Court, became the first woman of color in the New York State Senate, the first woman to serve as Manhattan borough president, and the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary. Brown-Nagin, who is also the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History, spoke with the Gazette about her new book and Motley’s lasting impact. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

  • What Conservatives Really Mean When They Say Biden’s Potential SCOTUS Nominees Are “Unqualified”

    January 31, 2022

    Justice Stephen Breyer had not even formally announced his retirement before Republicans and conservative legal operatives began their racist crusade against his as-yet-to-be-named successor. During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden promised to nominate a Black woman to the first seat that came open. Biden has many extraordinary candidates on his short list. But for reasons that should surprise nobody who’s been paying attention to recent history, these early commenters do not appear to see these candidates’ impeccable credentials and extraordinary accomplishments. Instead, they have opted to prejudge any Black woman, and indeed all Black women nominees, as inherently inferior and underqualified. ... Some background that is too often left out of these discussions: Women of color were locked out of the judiciary for most of American history. The first Black woman to serve on a federal court, Constance Baker Motley, was not appointed until 1966. Motley had a sterling track record of accomplishments: She argued before the Supreme Court on 10 occasions and won nine times, assisted Thurgood Marshall in litigating Brown v. Board of Education, and tried myriad cases in lower courts, including several in New York.* But as Harvard law professor and legal historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin has recently documented, the American Bar Association hesitated to approve Motley. Why? The white men who ran the ABA doubted whether she was sufficiently qualified. They ultimately gave her a lukewarm rating of “qualified” rather than “well qualified,” even though she was one of the most successful and experienced litigators of her era—an advocate so committed that she risked her life to defend her Black clients in the Jim Crow South.

  • Analysis: This Black woman judge laid the groundwork for those who would follow

    January 31, 2022

    As President Joe Biden reaffirms his commitment to nominate the first Black woman to the US Supreme Court, it makes sense to revisit the life and work of another Black woman who profoundly shaped the law: Constance Baker Motley. Motley was a “desegregation architect” who over the course of decades inspired numerous women lawyers and judges — including some on the short list of potential nominees. Yet she’s often missing from the pantheon of great Americans. Many are familiar with Thurgood Marshall, but few outside judiciary circles talk about Motley’s vital role in dismantling racial segregation and gender discrimination. ... In her magnificent new volume, “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, offers a gripping chronicle of Motley’s life and career, and in the process gives the trailblazer’s leviathan achievements the attention they deserve.

  • Biden isn’t first to prioritize race, gender in picking SCOTUS nominee

    January 31, 2022

    Fox News host Sean Hannity misleadingly claimed that President Joe Biden was venturing into unprecedented territory with his pledge to nominate a Black woman as a replacement for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who is retiring after 28 years. ... Nikolas Bowie, assistant professor of law at Harvard Law School, said Hannity’s claim “ignores the reality that from 1789 through 1967, every president made race and gender a defining factor in their selection process by refusing to nominate anyone other than a white man.” ... Tomiko Brown-Nagin, another professor of constitutional law and history at Harvard University, said the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Italian background was a “defining, positive factor in Ronald Reagan’s selection of him,” citing a report in Slate, a progressive online magazine.

  • ‘Civil Rights Queen,’ the Story of a Brave and Brilliant Trailblazer

    January 26, 2022

    How do you measure progress? The incrementalist counsels patience: Something is better than nothing, half a loaf is better than none. Characteristically, Malcolm X wasn’t having any of that. In a televised round table in 1961, the civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley tried to coax Malcolm into acknowledging that the average Black American “is substantially better off than he was at the end of slavery.” He scorned the very premise. “Now you have 20 million Black people in America who are begging for some kind of recognition as human beings,” he said, referring to the Black Americans imprisoned at the time, “and the average white man today thinks we’re making progress.” It’s an evocative exchange, one that the Harvard legal historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin showcases to illuminating effect in “Civil Rights Queen,” the first major biography of Motley, a decade in the making. Brown-Nagin juxtaposes Motley’s attempts to find common ground by asking a series of lawyerly questions (“You recognize, don’t you …? “Don’t you think …?”) with Malcolm’s scathing rejoinders. By the mid-1960s, Motley had been caught “in a bind,” Brown-Nagin writes. Working at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., or Inc Fund, since 1946, she had been a crucial figure in using the courts to dismantle Jim Crow laws. Motley had helped litigate Brown v. Board of Education; she fought for Martin Luther King Jr.’s right to march in Birmingham. But to radicals disenchanted with the mainstream civil rights movement, she was “weak and accommodationist,” Brown-Nagin writes. Set against figures like Malcolm, “her politics and style looked tamer — and they were.”

  • Black children being led to jail by policemen in Birmingham, Alabama

    Rescuing MLK and his Children’s Crusade

    January 14, 2022

    In “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality,” Harvard Law Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin traces the tactics of the groundbreaking lawyer amid pivotal protests.

  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s book traces tactics of groundbreaking lawyer Constance Baker Motley amid pivotal protests

    January 14, 2022

    Excerpted from “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality” by Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Dean, Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law, and Professor of History. In the spring of 1963, the eyes of the nation turned to Birmingham, Alabama, then known as the home of a thriving iron and steel industry. In April and May of that year, Birmingham, a land trapped in a “Rip Van Winkle” slumber on issues of race, and the nation’s “chief symbol of racial intolerance,” according to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., became a flashpoint in the Black struggle for equality.

  • Woman sitting in a chair at the doorway of an office making a wide hand gesture.

    In Memoriam: Lani Guinier 1950 – 2022

    January 8, 2022

    Lani Guinier, the first African-American woman to be tenured at Harvard Law School and an influential scholar who devoted her life to justice, equality, empowerment, and democracy, died Jan. 7.

  • The power of eye-opening images

    December 17, 2021

    An op-ed by Tomiko Brown-Nagin: In 2021, I was struck—again—by the role of images in advancing justice. Among the most potent examples were the videos of the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Images have long been catalysts of change in the struggle for equal justice under law and civil rights in the US, a focus of my scholarship. Photographs of police violence against peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham “sickened” President John F. Kennedy and pricked the conscience of Whites who had ignored the horror of segregation, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When protesters marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and were attacked by law enforcement officers, footage of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” helped turn the tide in the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

  • What 2021 taught us about the fight for racial justice

    December 16, 2021

    The power of eye-opening images, by Tomiko Brown-Nagin: In 2021, I was struck—again—by the role of images in advancing justice. Among the most potent examples were the videos of the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Images have long been catalysts of change in the struggle for equal justice under law and civil rights in the US, a focus of my scholarship. Photographs of police violence against peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham “sickened” President John F. Kennedy and pricked the conscience of Whites who had ignored the horror of segregation, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When protesters marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and were attacked by law enforcement officers, footage of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” helped turn the tide in the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In recent years, ordinary people with cell phones have borne witness to racial violence and shared their footage on social media, making injustice more visible.

  • Both Sides Now – Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s bifocal view of the civil-rights movement

    December 15, 2021

    Tomiko Brown-Nagin is a legal historian of what she calls “one of the most celebrated social movements of all time—the black freedom struggle.” Two photographs sit on a bookcase behind her desk at Greenleaf House, the residence of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute’s dean—her role since 2018. One shows her with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the other with Congressman John R. Lewis, LL.D. ’12. They are proxies for contrasting ways she thinks about the American civil-rights movement. Sotomayor, the first woman of color on the Supreme Court, connects to work Brown-Nagin has done about the movement from the top down, shaped by federal courts, as in her new book on Federal District Judge Constance Baker Motley, called Civil Rights Queen. Lewis, on the other hand, connects to her 2011 book Courage to Dissent about the movement from the bottom up. He was among the early Freedom Riders who challenged Jim Crow laws and headed the bloody march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery, which led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The photos were visible recently as Brown-Nagin took part in a Radcliffe online event as chair of the initiative President Lawrence S. Bacow created on Harvard and the legacy of slavery. The effort is necessary, she said, “to understand and address the enduring legacy of slavery within our university.” The discussion touched on delicate issues, which the report on legacies of slavery, expected this winter, is likely to address: bequests of land, buildings, and money connected with slavery, as well as members of the Harvard community who were embroiled in the system of slavery. “As I’ve said many times,” she went on, “we can’t dismantle what we don’t understand, and we can’t understand contemporary inequity and injustice unless we reckon honestly with our history.”

  • Floyd’s Death Leads To Disinformation About Black Lives Matter Movement

    May 25, 2021

    Support for Black Lives Matter erupted after the murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin. But activists say many posts targeting Black Lives Matter are full of disinformation. Featuring Tomiko Brown-Nagin.

  • It would be glorious’: hopes high for Biden to nominate first Black woman to supreme court

    April 20, 2021

    Joe Biden’s promise to nominate an African American woman to the supreme court for the first time holds broad symbolic significance for Darlene McDonald, an activist and police reform commissioner in Salt Lake City, Utah...Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a civil rights historian, dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute and professor of constitutional law, said having qualified federal judges who “reflect the broad makeup of the American public” would strengthen democracy and faith in the courts. “It’s an important historical moment that signifies equal opportunity,” Brown-Nagin said. “That anyone who is qualified has the chance to be considered for nomination, notwithstanding race, notwithstanding gender. That is where we are. In some ways, we shouldn’t be congratulating ourselves, right?” Brown-Nagin pointed out that a campaign was advanced in the 1960s to nominate Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to sit as a federal judge, but some Democratic allies of President Lyndon Johnson opposed such a nomination because they saw it as too politically risky. “This moment could have happened 50 years ago,” Brown-Nagin said.

  • Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

    After a hard election, the real work begins

    November 13, 2020

    In a recent Harvard Gazette roundup, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Phil Torrey and other university scholars, analysts, and affiliates took a look at what the election tells us about the prospects for greater unity and progress, and offered suggestions and predictions about where the new administration will, and should, go.

  • Hard lessons from a tough election

    November 6, 2020

    It was a presidential election befitting the past four years, unprecedented and contentious...The Gazette asked scholars and analysts across the University to reflect on lessons learned in a variety of areas...Tomiko Brown-Nagin: “This election crystalized American promise and American peril. Fifty-five years after passage of the Voting Rights Act and 100 years after ratification of the 19th Amendment, the fundamental right to vote — the essence of a democracy —remains ferociously contested and deeply cherished. Turnout was extraordinary! An estimated 67 percent of eligible voters cast ballots — almost 160 million people — the greatest number in more than 100 years...At the same time, we witnessed a concerted effort to suppress the vote, to intimidate voters, and to delegitimize legally cast votes.” ... Sandy Levinson: “What we learned was that the uncertainty of this election is entirely a function of the crazy way that Americans elect their president, which is through the Electoral College. This means, for example, that [President] Trump gets nine electoral votes for carrying the two Dakotas plus Wyoming, which collectively have only about 200,000 more residents than New Mexico, which contributed only five votes. What remains an ‘interesting’ question, if one is an academic, is why Americans persist with such a truly dysfunctional system of presidential election.” ... Carol Steiker: “What I have learned in this election is that despite, or perhaps because of, the anger and divisiveness that have marked this political season, it is possible to substantially shift the needle on popular political engagement. We are seeing levels of voter turnout in this election not seen in more than a century, since William Howard Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1908.” ... Kenneth Mack: “What I have learned from this election so far is both a lot and a little. Historians typically look at elections as vehicles for possible political, economic, or social change. Certainly in the run-up to this year’s election we’ve seen some things change significantly. We have the first woman of color on a major party ticket (who now seems poised to become vice president), Black candidates seeming to run competitively statewide in several Southern states, and efforts to suppress minority voting of a kind we haven’t seen in decades.” ... Yochai Benkler: “ The right-wing propaganda feedback loop, anchored in Fox News and talk radio and supported by online media, has played two critical roles in the election. The first, and most foundational, is that throughout the presidency of Donald Trump it offered an alternative reality, in which the president was a strong, effective leader hounded by an alliance of Democrats who hate America and Deep State operatives bent on reversing the victory of Trump, the authentic voice of the people.”

  • How a Barrett Confirmation Could Impact Women’s Rights

    October 13, 2020

    In today's segment of "Bloomberg Equality," Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Harvard University professor of constitutional law, discusses what Amy Coney Barrett's inclusion on the Supreme Court bench could mean for the future of women's rights and diversity. She speaks with Bloomberg's Caroline Hyde, Romaine Bostick and Taylor Riggs on "Bloomberg Markets: The Close."

  • A new survey says white support for Black Lives Matter has slipped. Some historians say they’re not surprised

    September 28, 2020

    Earlier this summer, thousands of Americans spilled into the streets in anger and anguish over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, whose killings at the hands of police and vigilantes sparked an outcry against racism not seen in this country since the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Donations were made. Petitions were signed. Books like “How to Be an Antiracist" and “White Fragility" climbed to the top of bestseller lists. Protests spread from cities to suburbs, denouncing police brutality and demanding justice. More white Americans seemed willing to admit that deep-seated, structural racism did not end with the banishment of Jim Crow. But recent polling suggests white support for the Black Lives Matter movement has slipped. According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, support for the movement fell from 67 percent in June to 55 percent in September. The decline was driven largely by white adults, whose support dropped from 60 percent earlier this summer to 45 percent this month...In the context of US racial history, it is not surprising that support among non-Black groups, and white adults in particular, has fallen, experts said. Historians drew parallels between the current moment and the 1960s, a decade that saw sharp peaks and valleys in white support for the civil rights movement... “Importantly, that groundswell of support . . . followed white perpetrators attacking nonviolent demonstrators,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a legal historian and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. “That’s the scenario in which whites are likely to support civil rights movements because there are two clear sides” representing “good" and "evil,” she said... Krugler and Brown-Nagin said white backlash to the civil rights movement was intensified by the “law and order” rhetoric Richard Nixon deployed in his 1968 presidential campaign, which Trump and other political figures have echoed in their derision of protesters today.

  • Harvard Law School honors Ginsburg

    September 28, 2020

    During her first year as the sole woman on the US Supreme Court in 2006, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a foreword for a biography of the 19th-century lawyer Belva Ann Lockwood and presented the book to a new law clerk in her chambers. On Thursday, the clerk, Daphna Renan, now a professor at Harvard Law School, highlighted the foreword as an example of how Ginsburg broke barriers for women while simultaneously honoring her predecessors in the fight for equality. “Justice Ginsburg was a giant in the law, a luminary, and a leader, as you’ve heard, but she was always ... keenly aware of those who paved the way for her even as she trained her sights on how she could better pave it for others,” Renan said. She delivered the remarks during a virtual Harvard Law School event honoring Ginsburg, who died last Friday...Harvard Law’s current dean, John F. Manning, said the institution regrets the discrimination Ginsburg endured on campus. “It is hard to imagine a more consequential life, a life of greater meaning, and more lasting impact. And Justice Ginsburg did all of this while carrying the heavy weight imposed by discrimination,” he said. “To our eternal regret, she encountered it here at Harvard Law School.” The virtual event included tributes from Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and Harvard Law professors Vicki Jackson, Martha Minow, and Michael Klarman...Brown-Nagin’s remarks explored what Ginsburg’s death means to the civil rights movement and comparisons between Ginsburg and the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black man to serve on the Supreme Court. Beyond fighting for women’s rights, Brown-Nagin said, Ginsburg had a deep understanding of racial discrimination and poured that insight into cases dealing with race. She cited Ginsburg’s dissent in a 1995 school desegregation case in Missouri in which the justice wrote it was too soon to curtail efforts to combat racial segregation given the state’s history of racial inequality. “The Court stresses that the present remedial programs have been in place for seven years,” Ginsburg wrote. “But compared to more than two centuries of firmly entrenched official discrimination, the experience with the desegregation remedies ordered by the [lower court] has been evanescent.” Ginsburg was, Brown-Nagin said, a “tremendous intellect, a courageous human being, and a giant of the law.”

  • How Amy Coney Barrett Would Reshape the Court — And the Country

    September 28, 2020

    Amy Coney Barrett has been a federal judge for just three years, but one thing is already certain: She’d mark a sharp turn from Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. At just 48 years old, the former clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia would lock in a long-term conservative legacy for President Donald Trump, who is expected to nominate her officially this afternoon. Democrats are already anxious enough about the looming 6-3 conservative majority that they’re openly considering expanding court-packing to counter it. But what do we really know about her judicial philosophy, and how she’d rule on major issues? Politico Magazine asked top constitutional law experts and Supreme Court watchers to weigh in...Tomiko Brown-Nagin: “If confirmed, Judge Amy Coney Barrett will consolidate the conservative majority and shift the balance of power on the court decidedly to the right. She has called abortion “immoral” and written that judges are not always bound by precedent. And, consistent with the anti-abortion movement’s current strategy, she has expressed openness to hollowing out Roe v. Wade through state regulations. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a mark as a strong supporter of reproductive freedom; she consistently voted against state encroachments on Roe v. Wade. A critic of Chief Justice John Roberts’ role in the blockbuster case that upheld the Affordable Care Act in 2012, Judge Barrett is likely to give the law’s opponents a sympathetic hearing in the case pending before the court. By contrast, Justice Ginsburg, a strong voice and critical vote in support of the ACA, would almost certainly have again sustained the federal law. On the question of gun rights, Ginsburg sustained regulations, whereas Barrett has questioned the constitutionality of a categorical ban on gun ownership by felons. The contrast between the two jurists is evident on numerous other issues. Given the stark differences between Justice Ginsburg’s voting record and that of her presumed replacement, Judge Barrett’s nomination promises to transform the Supreme Court. That said, it would be a mistake to dismiss Judge Barrett as a mere partisan or a zealot; her writings bear the mark of a scholar who reasons carefully about legal cases and controversies.”

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg arriving at the State of The Union, wlaking down the aisle surrounded by justices and members of Congress.

    ‘It’s hard to imagine a more consequential life’

    September 25, 2020

    Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s influence on Harvard Law School runs deep. On Thursday, September 24, a star team of Harvard deans and HLS professors remembered Ginsburg as a teacher, boss, colleague, inspiration and friend.