Constance Baker Motley
1921 – 2005
Constance Baker Motley is one of the most influential jurists of the 20th century. Motley managed to achieve many firsts, including:
- First Black woman to serve as a federal judge
- First Black woman to serve in the New York state senate
- First Black woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court
- First woman to be Manhattan Borough president
- First Black woman accepted into Columbia Law School
In her youth, Motley attended an integrated public school in New Haven, Connecticut. Her love of reading drew her to a book filled with stories of Civil Rights heroes. This was a turning point for Motley, who decided midway through high school that she would someday become an attorney. After earning her bachelor's degree in economics from New York University, Motley became the first Black woman accepted into Columbia Law School.
Motley's legal mind was second to none. Her work with the NAACP brought her several cases that changed the history of the United States. Motley was key to preparing the petitioner's case in the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Brown made Motley the first Black woman to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. Motley's activist jurisprudence and success earned her the opportunity to represent Freedom Riders and sit-in protesters during the 1960s. James Meredith, the first Black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, was also fortunate to have Motley serve as lead council in the case that helped him gain admission to Ole Miss. All told, Constance Baker Motley was the winner of nine out of the ten cases she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1960s.
Before President Lyndon Johnson appointed Motley to the federal court (Southern District of New York), Motley was busy fighting to protect our civil liberties. Motley's body of work includes a stint clerking for NAACP hero Thurgood Marshall. Her philanthropy and ambition were evident, as she elected to work for the Legal and Emotional Defense Fund of the NAACP.
Baker was invested in social justice before the term social justice entered the national lexicon. Writing about the life of Judge Motley, in 2005, Douglas Martin of the New York Times describes Motley's interest in fighting for the rights of the powerless, "Judge Motley was at the center of the firestorm that raged through the South in the two decades after World War II, as blacks and their white allies pressed to end the segregation that had gripped the region since Reconstruction. She visited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in jail, sang freedom songs in churches that had been bombed, and spent a night under armed guard with Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader who was later murdered."
Who inspired this social giant? Where did Judge Motley look for motivation? None other than Jane Bolin. Bolin is the first Black woman to serve as judge in any court in the United States. The sheer idea of a Black woman holding a position of that stature within the legal community was sufficient to direct Judge Motley to her true calling – law and justice for all.