Judge Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)

“Judge Motley played a major role in the ongoing effort to end racial injustice in this country,” said Eva Paterson, EJS president. “Her incredible life is not only marked by how many barriers she broke on behalf of women and Black Americans, but also the considerable legal skills and talents she brought to winning Brown v. Board and to the numerous cases she heard on the bench.”

Judge Motley (September 14, 1921-September 28, 2005) was an African American civil rights activist, lawyer, judge, and state senator. Upon hearing of the founding of the Equal Justice Society, Judge Motley stated, “Now I can relax.”

In her fifty-plus years as a jurist, Motley had a major impact on ending racial discrimination. As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s associate counsel, she wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education and participated in writing the appellate briefs for Brown v. Board, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation. From 1961 to 1964, Motley won nine of the 10 civil rights cases she argued before the Court, including James Meredith’s successful suit to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962.

She went on to shatter other gender and race barriers as the first African American woman elected to the New York State Senate in 1964 and chosen as the Manhattan Borough President, the first woman ever to hold the position, in 1965.

Appointed to a judgeship for the United States District Court Southern District of New York in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson, she became the first African American woman on the federal bench and, in 1982, the first African American woman to serve as chief judge. She assumed senior judge status in 1986, and in 2001, In President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens’ Medal in recognition of her achievements and service to the nation. The National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted Motley in 1993.

Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the ninth of twelve children born to immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Her mother was the founder of the New Haven chapter of the NAACP.

Motley began her studies in 1939 at which point there were only 39 black women lawyers in the United States. With financial help from a local philanthropist, she initially attended Fisk University, a historically Black college in Tennessee, before deciding to transfer to the integrated New York University.

After graduating from New York University in 1943, Motley took a well-paying job with a wartime agency that aided the dependents of servicemen. A year later, she turned down a promotion in order to attend Columbia University School of Law School, leading her supervisor to say: “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard, a complete waste of time. Women don’t get anywhere in the law.”

While still a law student at Columbia, Motley met Thurgood Marshall, then the NAACP legal director, who offered her a job as a law clerk in the organization’s New York office. After receiving her law degree in 1946, Motley became a full-fledged member of the NAACP legal staff and the first female attorney at LDF.

For more information on Judge Motley, see:

  • Godfrey Hodgson, “Constance Baker Motley”, The Guardian, Oct. 1, 2005
  • Joe Holley, “Constance Motley Dies; Rights Lawyer, Judge,” Washington Post, September 29, 2005, B07
  • Douglas Martin, “Constance Baker Motley, Civil Rights Trailblazer, Dies at 84”, New York Times, Sept. 29, 2005
  • Constance Baker Motley, Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998)
  • National Visionary Leadership Project, Constance Baker Motley Oral History Video Excerpts (visionaryproject.com/motleyconstancebaker/)
  • Papers of Constance Baker Motley: Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College (smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/agents/motley.html)

Portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

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