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Motley, Constance Bakerfree

(14 Sept. 1921–28 Sept. 2005)
  • Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Motley, Constance Baker (14 Sept. 1921–28 Sept. 2005), civil rights lawyer, politician, and judge, was born Constance Baker in New Haven, Connecticut, the ninth of twelve children of Willoughby Baker, a chef for various Yale University student organizations, and Rachel Huggins Baker, a preschool teacher prior to her marriage. Her parents hailed from Nevis, the Caribbean island and English colony, and had immigrated to the United States during the early twentieth century. The family’s immigrant background shaped the young girl’s upbringing and values; she grew up in a tight-knit community of immigrants who shared cultural practices, worshiped together, and secured work in New Haven’s service industries. Coming of age during the Great Depression in the 1930s, Constance attended the city’s racially integrated schools and lived in a racially mixed, working-class immigrant neighborhood. Her neighbors and schoolmates included Italians, Irish, Jews, and Nevisians.

Ambitious and intelligent, Constance Baker graduated from Hillhouse High School in 1939 with good grades, a commitment to social activism, and a dream to attend college. However, her parents sometimes struggled to provide basic necessities for their children and could not afford college tuition. A lucky turn of events and the generosity of a complete stranger enabled her to pursue her educational dream. After hearing the recent high school graduate give a talk about civic engagement at a local community center, Clarence W. Blakeslee, a New Haven industrial magnate and philanthropist, offered to fund the impressive young woman’s education—tuition, fees, and living expenses.

Following a stint at Fisk University, a historically black college, Baker matriculated to New York University (NYU) and made New York City her home. She graduated from NYU with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1943. Her experiences among the politically engaged leftists, pacifists, and trade unionists in Greenwich Village deepened her long-held desire to attain a law degree and to pursue a career in public service. In 1944, Baker matriculated to Columbia Law School; the school opened its doors to her and a few other female and black students at a time when numerous white male students had left higher education for the warfront.

In 1945, while still in law school, Baker landed her dream job. Thurgood Marshall, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), invited her to work as his law clerk. The young woman readily accepted the offer of the lawyer who earned the moniker “Mr. Civil Rights.” The next year, 1946, also proved momentous. She graduated from law school, married Joel Wilson Motley, Jr., a real estate broker, and started working full-time at LDF. The couple, who lived in New York City, had one son, born 13 May 1952.

As World War II ended and a tumultuous era of civil rights activism began, Constance Baker Motley began her legal career. Through her work at LDF, Motley played a pivotal role in the twentieth century’s epochal legal and social changes. The only woman lawyer at the nation’s leading civil rights law firm during most of her tenure there, Motley became Marshall’s protégée. Under Marshall’s tutelage, Motley handled dozens of groundbreaking cases; even as she parented a young son. Motley co-wrote the briefs for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark constitutional case that ended state-mandated segregation in elementary and secondary education. She co-counseled several cases that desegregated higher education in the South, including victories against the University of Georgia, Clemson University, and the University of Alabama. And, in her most famous case, she represented James Meredith in his successful bid to end Jim Crow at the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”). Motley also handled litigation that ameliorated salary discrimination against black schoolteachers; that desegregated the public schools of Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, and New Rochelle; and that ended segregation in numerous parks, playgrounds, public housing, and public accommodations.

Through her service as the personal lawyer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and her representation of the famed Birmingham Children’s Marchers, Motley also aided the direct action wing of the civil rights movement. In May 1963, the Children’s Marchers led a series of demonstrations to desegregate the city; the nonviolent protests culminated when police pummeled the students with batons, turned fire hoses on them, and threatened the students with police dogs. Photos and footage of the police violence against peaceful student protesters shocked the world and turned public opinion in the North in the movement’s favor. And as a result of Motley’s courtroom advocacy, the city was forced to release hundreds of the students wrongly arrested during the dramatic protests.

In the course of her work for the civil rights movement, Motley compiled an enviable record as a trial and appellate lawyer. One of just a few women lawyers to appear at the US Supreme Court, Motley won nine of the ten cases that she argued before the Court. Her formidable courtroom skills and preternaturally calm demeanor earned her the moniker, “The Civil Rights Queen.”

During the mid-1960s, Motley’s fame as a lawyer gave rise to a career in a new realm—electoral politics. In 1964, New Yorkers elected Motley to the state senate; she was the first black woman to serve in that legislative body. In 1965, Motley made political history once more when she was selected to fill the vacant post of Manhattan borough president and then nine months later elected to the position. The first woman to hold the borough presidency, Motley championed urban renewal and revitalization and better social services for woman and children through her position. Part of a new generation of women leaders that included Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug, Motley encouraged more women to enter politics even as she endured tremendous pushback from some New Yorkers, who resented the idea of a woman “ruling over” the city.

Motley’s time in politics did not last long because she was about to cap off her career with a historic judicial appointment. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Motley to the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, located in Manhattan, making her the first African American woman to sit on the federal bench. The US Senate confirmed Motley after months of delay engineered by segregationists such as Mississippi’s Senator James O. Eastland. Motley went on to a distinguished, thirty-nine-year career on the federal bench, serving as chief judge of the US District Court from 1982 to 1986 and then becoming senior judge.

During her judicial career, Motley presided over a wide range of matters, including cases that implemented the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in education and employment. In Blank v. Sullivan (1975), Motley issued a landmark decision banning sex discrimination against women lawyers. And in Ludtke v. Kuhn (1976), Judge Motley broke new ground by holding that a professional baseball team’s sex-based exclusion of a female journalist, Melissa Ludtke, from the locker rooms of male athletes violated the Constitution. In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal, and, in 2003, she received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, the organization’s highest honor. Two years later, the Honorable Constance Baker Motley died in New York City.

Rightly called a “trailblazer” by numerous commentators, Motley’s rise in the legal profession and in electoral politics had been improbable. Well-meaning observers—including her own parents—had discouraged Motley’s interest in the law. The law, they said, was an unsuitable profession for a woman, particularly a black woman. Constance Baker Motley proved all doubters wrong. Motley’s accomplishments in law and in politics—outstanding for any lawyer and unheard of among her sex—made her one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth century.


Manuscript material on Constance Baker Motley, including legal papers, letters, memoranda, and news articles, is found at the archives of the Library of Congress, Smith College, Columbia University Law School, New York University, the National Archives of the United States, and the National Archives of St. Kitts and Nevis. See also the oral history interview of Motley conducted by the Columbia University Oral History Project. Constance Baker Motley reflected on her life and career in Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography (1998). See also Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (2011), as well as Brown-Nagin’s forthcoming biography. An obituary appeared in The New York Times on 29 Sept. 2005.