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Motley, Constance Baker

Constance Baker Motley

1921–2005

Federal court judge, lawyer, politician

When, in May of 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, the real struggle for school desegregation was just beginning. Over the next ten years, dozens of legal battles were required to enforce the ruling, and one of the leading powers behind them was a young, black trial attorney named Constance Baker Motley. Motley began working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1945, while still a law student at Columbia. Within a short time, she had risen from clerk to associate counsel and earned a reputation as a keen and meticulous lawyer. The first African American woman to represent the NAACP in court, Motley participated in nearly every important civil rights case brought to trial between 1945 and 1965, winning nine out of ten of them before the U.S. Supreme Court. Among her most famous victories was the case of James H. Meredith against the University of Mississippi, which ended in September of 1962, after 16 months of litigation. Motley was "a lioness who braved great danger to use the laws of this land to fight racial bigotry," according to USA Today writer DeWayne Wickham.

After leaving the NAACP in 1964, Motley was elected to the New York State Senate, becoming the first black woman in the state's history to hold such an office. The following year, she was selected by New York's city councilmen to fill the vacant post of Manhattan borough president, and was handily reelected nine months later in a citywide vote. The first woman—black or white—to serve as a borough president, she also became the first woman to sit on the New York Board of Estimate. Motley reached the pinnacle of her career in January of 1966, when President Lyndon B. Johnson named her U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York, a region that includes Manhattan, the Bronx, and six counties north of the city. The appointment made her the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge and the highest-paid black woman in government. Motley became chief judge in 1982, and four years later was appointed senior judge.

Experienced Racism

Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1921. The ninth of 12 children of West Indian parents who had migrated to the United States from the Caribbean island of Nevis, she grew up among a small, close-knit community of immigrants on the outskirts of the Yale University campus. Her father worked as a chef for the Skull & Bones, one of the university's elitist social clubs. At that time, New Haven's black population was very small, and Motley was one of only a few African American students in her elementary and high school classes. She excelled in her studies, however, and filled in the gaps in her knowledge of black history and culture through her attendance at an Episcopal church, where the minister delivered lectures on the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and other prominent African American scholars. It was not until she was 15 years old that she encountered her first real experiences with racism. One day, she and a group of friends were turned away from a public beach in nearby Milford, Connecticut, as the rules prohibited interracial swimming parties. On another occasion, she was denied admission to a roller-skating rink. These incidents stimulated her interest in civil rights and prompted her to become actively involved in community affairs. For a short time, she served as president of the local NAACP youth council and secretary of the New Haven Adult Community Council, both established to eliminate racial discrimination. She had originally hoped to become an interior decorator, but by the time she had finished high school in 1939, her aspirations had changed, and she set her sights on a career in law.

Philanthropist Paid for College

Despite Motley's strong academic ability and keen motivation, her parents could not afford to send her or her 11 brothers and sisters to college. For a few months following her graduation from high school, she struggled to earn a living as a domestic worker. She then accepted a job with the New Haven branch of the National Youth Administration. One night, she happened to deliver a speech at the Dixwell Community House, an African American social organization. The speech focused on the need for black members to be given greater control over the facility's operation. Without this, she contended, they would continue to shun its activities.

Among the members of the audience was Clarence Blakeslee, the wealthy white contractor and philanthropist who had built the center. Blakeslee was so impressed with the intelligence and poise of the tall, stately 18-year-old that he offered to pay for her college education. He could not understand why a student of her caliber was not in school. Motley remembered his generosity more than half a century later in a speech given during her induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame. "[Blakeslee] had made millions of dollars, and what he did with those millions was to help educate black Americans," the New Yorker quoted her as saying. "Clarence Blakeslee was a white man responsible for my being here today."

Eager to experience life in the South and observe firsthand the effects of segregation, Motley enrolled at Fisk University, a well-respected black institution in Nashville. On her first trip home, she brought her parents a poignant souvenir: a sign that read, "Colored Only." "It was my first experience in a black institution with black people who were just like white people, as we used to say," she recalled in an interview with the New Yorker. "Their parents were college educated, they had wealth. For the first time, I met blacks who were doing something other than cooking and waiting on tables."

Set Her Sights on a Law Career

Motley was surprised to learn, however, that most of her African American classmates intended to return to the black community, and had no interest whatsoever in advancing in the world of whites. Motley herself felt differently, and in June of 1942, after little more than a year at Fisk, she transferred to New York University. She graduated from NYU's Washington Square College with a bachelor's degree in economics and her mind set on becoming a lawyer.

At a Glance …

Born Constance Baker, September 14, 1921, in New Haven, CT; died on September 28, 2005, in New York, NY. daughter of Willoughby (a chef) and Rachel Baker; married Joel Wilson Motley, Jr., 1946; children: Joel Wilson III. Education: New York University, BA, 1943; Columbia University, LLB, 1946.

Career: Staff member and associate counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, New York, 1945–65; New York state senator, 1964–65; Manhattan Borough President, 1965–66; U.S. District Court judge, 1966–82; chief judge, 1982–86; senior judge, 1986–2005.

Memberships: NAACP; New York State Advisory Council on Employment and Unemployment Insurance, 1958–64; New York City Bar Association; National Bar Association.

Awards: Elizabeth Blackwell Award, Hobart & William Smith College, 1965; Columbia Law School Medal for Excellence, 1987; New York State Bar Association Gold Medal Award, 1988; Achievement Award, Associated Transit Guild of New York City; Good Government Award, New York State Careerists Society; National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, 1993. Received more than 20 honorary degrees from American colleges and universities, including Smith College, Tulane University, Princeton University, Brown University, Howard University, and Spelman College.

Motley began her studies at Columbia Law School in February of 1944. She was, at that time, one of the only African American women enrolled there. During her first year of law school, she met Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and later a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who offered her a job as a law clerk in the organization's New York office. After receiving her law degree in 1946, she became a full-fledged member of the legal staff. Her early work for the fund focused on discrimination against blacks in the area of housing. At that time, many of the clients who sought help from the organization had been denied the right to buy real estate in white neighborhoods. She sought to break the restrictive covenants that allowed this to happen.

Motley passed the New York State bar examination in 1948, and the following year was appointed assistant counsel at the Legal Defense Fund. She got her first courtroom experience that same year, when Marshall sent her, along with his chief assistant, Robert Carter, to Jackson, Mississippi, to handle an equalization-of-salary suit brought by an African American teacher against the Jackson public school system. The local newspapers ran a prominent story on the trial, and the courtroom was packed to the rafters. In the 1940s, Motley wrote in Ms., "women lawyers were a joke in most courthouses and unheard of in virtually every place except New York City…. The whole town turned out to see the 'Negro' lawyers from New York, 'one of whom [was] a woman.'"

Rose to Prominence as Attorney

Over the next 15 years, Motley served as a key attorney in dozens of school desegregation cases handled by the fund, appearing in dramatic courtroom trials in 11 southern states and the District of Columbia. After helping Marshall write the legal briefs for the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, she went on to argue ten of her own before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning nine of them. In 1956, she helped Autherine Lucy, the daughter of a black tenant farmer who had completed her undergraduate education at a segregated college, win the right to attend graduate school at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Six years later, Motley, then associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, won national recognition for representing James H. Meredith during his long but ultimately successful battle to gain admission to the University of Mississippi.

The case, which required nearly 15 court hearings and cost the fund an estimated $30,000, was considered a major victory for civil rights, and helped make Meredith a national hero. In May of 1963, less than a year after her victory with Meredith, Motley fought for the reinstatement of more than 1,000 black schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama, who had been suspended or expelled from public school for participating in peaceful civil rights demonstrations there. According to Anne S. Emmanuel in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reinstating those students was what Motley considered "her most satisfying accomplishment." Four months later, she spearheaded the fund's successful efforts to prevent Governor George C. Wallace from blocking school desegregation in four Alabama counties.

Her accomplishments in the courtroom brought Motley enormous recognition. She was both feared and revered. As U.S. Congressman John Lewis remembered on his Web site, "in the heart of the American South, during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 50's and 60's, there were only two lawyers that made white segregationists tremble and gave civil rights workers hope—Constance Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall. When someone mentioned that one of them was coming to town, we knew there would be a shake-up for the cause of justice." Over her entire career, Motley never lost her desire to change the world for the better, and her reputation only grew more distinguished.

Drawn into Politics

By early 1964, Motley's high-profile work as a civil rights lawyer had drawn her into the world of politics. When, in February of that year, a Democratic candidate for the New York State Senate from Manhattan's Upper West Side was ruled off the ballot because of an election-law technicality, Motley was offered the nomination. She accepted the challenge, and after a short, low-key campaign, defeated the Republican candidate, Thomas G. Weaver, by a margin of 3,555 votes to 2,261, becoming the first black woman to be elected to the New York State Senate. She was reelected that November, and remained in the job until February of 1965, when she was chosen by the unanimous vote of the New York City Council to fill a one-year vacancy as Manhattan borough president.

In citywide elections nine months later, she was reelected to a full four-year term with the endorsement of Democratic, Republican, and Liberal voters. She thus became the first woman and the third African American to hold the office. While serving as borough president, Motley helped draw up a master plan to revitalize Harlem, which included the construction of a new state office building and city police academy. In an interview with the New Yorker, she described the plan as "the most exciting project I've been associated with," and emphasized the vital importance of "reclaim[ing] the inner city, rather than wip[ing] it out." In addition, she worked to improve city schools, rehabilitate housing in Harlem and other underprivileged areas, and pressed for more local community involvement in city planning. In March of 1965, she represented New York City on the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

First Female African American Federal Judge

In 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York requested that President Lyndon B. Johnson nominate Constance Motley for a federal district court judgeship in that state's southern district. Johnson agreed, and despite vigorous opposition to her appointment both from conservative southern senators and other federal judges—at the time, only two other women were U.S. district judges—the Senate confirmed the nomination in August of that year. Motley thus became the nation's first female African American federal judge. In June of 1982, she was named chief judge of the court, succeeding Judge Lloyd F. MacMahon. Four years later she assumed the position of senior judge, making her the top paid African American woman in government at the time. Committed to her work, and convinced of how important it was to others, Motley continued to try cases until her death.

Motley credits former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, with whom she worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, with giving her both the opportunity and the moral support she needed to succeed in the fiercely competitive judicial arena. "Lost in the shuffle may well be his personal, unique contributions to the advancement of women in the law," she wrote in a personal tribute to Marshall published in Ms. "[He] aid[ed] my career at a time when nobody was hiring women lawyers…. I am now a senior United States district judge, and I was the chief judge of the country's largest federal trial court from 1982 until 1986. But if it had not been for Thurgood Marshall, nobody would ever have heard of Constance Baker Motley."

In October of 1993, Motley was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, along with such distinguished honorees as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Rosalyn Yalow and Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund. Over the years, she had received dozens of awards and honorary degrees for her contributions to the legal profession and to the advancement of civil rights. Motley died on September 28, 2005, in New York. She will be remembered as a fearless defender of justice, who fulfilled her desire to change the world for the better.

Sources

Books

Brenner, Marie, Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women, Crown, 2000.

Lyman, Darryl, Great African American Women, J. David, 1999.

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 15, 2005, p. A13.

Ebony, January 1963.

Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2005, p. B10.

Ms., September/October 1991, pp. 88-89.

Newsweek, September 5, 1994.

New Yorker, September 17, 1966, pp. 48-50; May 16, 1994, pp. 65-71.

New York Post, October 6, 2005, p. 42.

New York Times, September 29, 2005, p. B10.

USA Today, November 23, 2005, p. A23.

Vogue, May 1967.

On-line

"Congressman John Lewis Remembers Constance Motley," U.S. House of Representatives, http://www.house.gov/johnlewis/05pressreleases/pr093005.html (December 2, 2005).

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"Motley, Constance Baker." Contemporary Black Biography. 2006. Encyclopedia.com. 30 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Motley, Constance Baker 1921—

Constance Baker Motley 1921

Civil rights lawyer, politician, federal judge

At a Glance

Experienced Segregation

A Major Victory for Civil Rights

Appointed to Federal Judgeship

Sources

When, in May of 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, the real struggle for school desegregation was just beginning. Over the next ten years, dozens of legal battles were required to enforce the ruling, and one of the leading powers behind them was a young, black trial attorney named Constance Baker Motley. Motley began working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1945, while still a law student at Columbia. Within a short time, she had risen from clerk to associate counsel and earned a reputation as a keen and meticulous lawyer. The first African American woman to represent the NAACP in court, Motley participated in nearly every important civil rights case brought to trial between 1945 and 1965, winning nine out of ten of them before the U.S. Supreme Court. Among her most famous victories was the case of James H. Meredith against the University of Mississippi, which ended in September of 1962, after 16 months of litigation.

After leaving the NAACP in 1964, Motley was elected to the New York State Senate, becoming the first black woman in the states history to hold such an office. The following year, she was selected by New Yorks city councilmen to fill the vacant post of Manhattan borough president, and was handily reelected nine months later in a city-wide vote. The first womanblack or whiteto serve as a borough president, she also became the first woman to sit on the New York Board of Estimate. Motley reached the pinnacle of her career in January of 1966, when President Lyndon B. Johnson named her U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York, a region that includes Manhattan, the Bronx, and six counties north of the city. The appointment made her the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge and the highest-paid black woman in government. Motley became chief judge in 1982, and four years later was appointed senior judge.

Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1921. The ninth of 12 children of West Indian parents who had migrated to the United States from the Caribbean island of Nevis, she grew up among a small, close-knit community of immigrants on the outskirts of the Yale University campus. Her father worked as a chef for the Skull &

At a Glance

Born Constance Baker, September 14, 1921, in New Haven, CT; daughter of Willoughby (a chef) and Rachel Baker; married Joel Wilson Motley, Jr., 1946; children: Joel Wilson III. Education: New York University, B.A, 1943; Columbia University, L.L.B., 1946.

Staff member and associate counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, New York, 194565; New York state senator, 196465; Manhattan Borough President, 196566; U.S. District Court judge, 196682; chief judge, 198266; senior judge, 1986.

Member: New York State Advisory Council on Employment and Unemployment Insurance, 195864; New York City Bar Association; National Bar Association.

Awards: Elizabeth Blackwell Award, Hobart & William Smith College, 1965; Columbia Law School Medal for Excellence, 1987; New York State Bar Association Gold Medal Award, 1988; Achievement Award, Associated Transit Guild of New York City; Good Government Award, New York State Careerists Society. Received more than 20 honorary degrees from American colleges and universities, including Smith College, Tulane University, Princeton University, Brown University, Howard University, and Spelman College.

Addresses: Office U.S. Courthouse, Foley Square, New York, NY 10007.

Bones, one of the universitys elitist social clubs. At that time, New Havens black population was very small, and Motley was one of only a few African American students in her elementary and high school classes. She excelled in her studies, however, and filled in the gaps in her knowledge of black history and culture through her attendance at an Episcopal church, where the minister delivered lectures on the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and other prominent African American scholars. It was not until she was 15 years old that she encountered her first real experiences with racism.

One day, she and a group of friends were turned away from a public beach in nearby Milford, Connecticut, as the rules prohibited interracial swimming parties. On another occasion, she was denied admission to a roller-skating rink. These incidents stimulated her interest in civil rights and prompted her to become actively involved in community affairs. For a short time, she served as president of the local NAACP youth council and secretary of the New Haven Adult Community Council, both established to eliminate racial discrimination. She had originally hoped to become an interior decorator, but by the time she had finished high school in 1939, her aspirations had changed, and she set her sights on a career in law.

Despite Motleys strong academic ability and keen motivation, her parents could not afford to send her or her 11 brothers and sisters to college. For a few months following her graduation from high school, she struggled to earn a living as a domestic worker. She then accepted a job with the New Haven branch of the National Youth Administration. One night, she happened to deliver a speech at the Dixwell Community House, an African American social organization. The speech focused on the need for black members to be given greater control over the facilitys operation. Without this, she contended, they would continue to shun its activities.

Among the members of the audience was Clarence Blakeslee, the wealthy white contractor and philanthropist who had built the center. Blakeslee was so impressed with the intelligence and poise of the tall, stately 18-year-old that he offered to pay for her college education. He could not understand why a student of her caliber was not in school. Motley remembered his generosity more than half a century later in a speech given during her induction into the National Womens Hall of Fame. [Blakeslee] had made millions of dollars, and what he did with those millions was to help educate black Americans, the New Yorker quoted her as saying. Clarence Blakeslee was a white man responsible for my being here today.

Experienced Segregation

Eager to experience life in the South and observe firsthand the effects of segregation, Motley enrolled at Fisk University, a well-respected black institution in Nashville. On her first trip home, she brought her parents a poignant souvenir: a sign which read, Colored Only. It was my first experience in a black institution with black people who were just like white people, as we used to say, she recalled in an interview with the New Yorker. Their parents were college educated, they had wealth. For the first time, I met blacks who were doing something other than cooking and waiting on tables.

Motley was surprised to learn, however, that most of her African American classmates intended to return to the black community, and had no interest whatsoever in advancing in the world of whites. Motley herself felt differently, and in June of 1942, after little more than a year at Fisk, she transferred to New York University. She graduated from NYUs Washington Square College with a bachelors degree in economics.

Motley began her studies at Columbia Law School in February of 1944. She was, at that time, one of the only African American women enrolled there. During her first year of law school, she met Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and later a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who offered her a job as a law clerk in the organizations New York office. After receiving her law degree in 1946, she became a full-fledged member of the legal staff. Her early work for the fund focused on discrimination against blacks in the area of housing. At that time, many of the clients who sought help from the organization had been denied the right to buy real estate in white neighborhoods. She sought to break the restrictive covenants that allowed this to happen.

Motley passed the New York State bar examination in 1948, and the following year was appointed assistant counsel at the Legal Defense Fund. She got her first courtroom experience that same year, when Marshall sent her, along with his chief assistant, Robert Carter, to Jackson, Mississippi, to handle an equalization-of-salary suit brought by an African American teacher against the Jackson public school system. The local newspapers ran a prominent story on the trial, and the courtroom was packed to the rafters. In the 1940s, Motley wrote in Ms., women lawyers were a joke in most courthouses and unheard of in virtually every place except New York City. The whole town turned out to see the Negro lawyers from New York, one of whom [was] a woman.

Over the next 15 years, Motley served as a key attorney in dozens of school desegregation cases handled by the fund, appearing in dramatic courtroom trials in 11 southern states and the District of Columbia. After helping Marshall write the legal briefs for the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, she went on to argue ten of her own before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning nine of them. In 1956, she helped Autherine Lucy, the daughter of a black tenant farmer who had completed her undergraduate education at a segregated college, win the right to attend graduate school at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Six years later, Motley, then associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, won national recognition for representing James H. Meredith during his long but ultimately successful battle to gain admission to the University of Mississippi.

A Major Victory for Civil Rights

The case, which required nearly 15 court hearings and cost the fund an estimated $30,000, was considered a major victory for civil rights, and helped make Meredith a national hero. In May of 1963, less than a year after her victory with Meredith, Motley fought for the reinstatement of more than 1,000 black schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama, who had been suspended for participating in peaceful civil rights demonstrations there. Four months later, she spearheaded the funds successful efforts to prevent Governor George C. Wallace from blocking school desegregation in four Alabama counties.

By early 1964, Motleys high-profile work as a civil rights lawyer had drawn her into the world of politics. When, in February of that year, a Democratic candidate for the New York State Senate from Manhattans Upper West Side was ruled off the ballot because of an election-law technicality, Motley was offered the nomination. She accepted the challenge, and after a short, low-key campaign, defeated the Republican candidate, Thomas G. Weaver, by a margin of 3,555 votes to 2,261, becoming the first black woman to be elected to the New York State Senate. She was reelected that November, and remained in the job until February of 1965, when she was chosen by the unanimous vote of the New York City Council to fill a one-year vacancy as Manhattan borough president.

In city-wide elections nine months later, she was reelected to a full four-year term with the endorsement of Democratic, Republican, and Liberal voters. She thus became the first woman and the third African American to hold the office. While serving as borough president, Motley helped draw up a master plan to revitalize Harlem, which included the construction of a new state office building and city police academy. In an interview with the New Yorker, she described the plan as the most exciting project Ive been associated with, and emphasized the vital importance of reclaim[ing] the inner city, rather than wip[ing] it out. In addition, she worked to improve city schools, rehabilitate housing in Harlem and other underprivileged areas, and pressed for more local community involvement in city planning. In March of 1965, she represented New York City on the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Appointed to Federal Judgeship

In 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York requested that President Lyndon B. Johnson nominate Constance Motley for a federal district court judgeship in that states southern district. Johnson agreed, and despite vigorous opposition to her appointment both from conservative southern senators and other federal judgesat the time, only two other women were U.S. district judgesthe Senate confirmed the nomination in August of that year. Motley thus became the nations first female African American federal judge. In June of 1982, she was named chief judge of the court, succeeding Judge Lloyd F. MacMahon, and four years later assumed the position of senior judge.

Motley credits former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, with whom she worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, with giving her both the opportunity and the moral support she needed to succeed in the fiercely competitive judicial arena. Lost in the shuffle may well be his personal, unique contributions to the advancement of women in the law, she wrote in a personal tribute to Marshall published in Ms. [He] aid[ed] my career at a time when nobody was hiring women lawyers. I am now a senior United States district judge, and I was the chief judge of the countrys largest federal trial court from 1982 until 1986. But if it had not been for Thurgood Marshall, nobody would ever have heard of Constance Baker Motley.

In October of 1993, Motley was inducted into the National Womens Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, along with such distinguished honorees as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Rosalyn Yalow and Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Childrens Defense Fund. Over the years, she had received dozens of awards and honorary degrees for her contributions to the legal profession and to the advancement of civil rights.

Sources

Ebony, January 1963.

Ms., September/October 1991, pp. 8889.

Newsweek, September 5, 1994.

New Yorker, September 17, 1966, pp. 4850; May 16, 1994, pp. 6571.

Vogue, May 1967.

Caroline B. D. Smith

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Smith, Caroline. "Motley, Constance Baker 1921—." Contemporary Black Biography. 1996. Encyclopedia.com. 30 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Smith, Caroline. "Motley, Constance Baker 1921—." Contemporary Black Biography. 1996. Encyclopedia.com. (May 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2871200054.html

Smith, Caroline. "Motley, Constance Baker 1921—." Contemporary Black Biography. 1996. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2871200054.html

Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley

The first African American woman appointed to a federal judgeship in the United States, Constance Baker Motley (born 1921) has repeatedly blazed new trails for women in the judiciary, as well as in politics.

Constance Baker Motley led a distinguished career as both a civil rights attorney and a jurist on the federal bench. Representing the voice of both minorities and women during her decades as a practicing attorney, she had also addressed the rights of these same groups from her position on the U.S. District Court of New York State. An energetic, dedicated woman who had devoted her life to the practice of law, she had transcended many stereotypes levelled against members of her sex, earning a reputation as a somewhat uncompromising jurist with little patience for lawyers who overstep their bounds. Upon receiving the Distinguished Alumna Award from Columbia Law School's Women's Association, Motley was cited as "a symbol of success … at a time when there was enormous discrimination against woman, and even more against black women."

Early Involvement in Community Yields Benefits

Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on September 14, 1921, the daughter of emigrants from the West Indies. Motley's father worked as a chef on the campus of Yale University, thus ensuring that his daughter would be exposed to an academic environment. As a child, Motley learned about the history of African Americans through her local Sunday School class, in which teachers sought to address the large number of African-Americans in the community.

During her high school years she exhibited both initiative and strong leadership skills, serving as president of the city's Youth Council and as secretary for New Haven's Adult Community Center. These early experiences would serve Motley well after high school graduation; although the financial demands of tuition put college out of reach, she was still able to obtain a good job with the National Youth Administration (NYA) due to her strong clerical and administrative skills and her public service background. Among Motley's tasks at the NYA was addressing topics of interest at the city's public forums. At one such forum, a talk she presented so impressed local businessman Clarence Blakeslee that he offered to put Motley through college.

Motley took Blakeslee up on his offer and enrolled at Fisk University, transferring to New York University after a few semesters and graduating with a degree in economics in 1943. Columbia Law School would be next; Motley received her LL.B. from that institution in 1946. That same year, on August 18, she would marry a local insurance broker named Joel W. Motley, with whom she would eventually have a son.

Devotes Early Career to Quest for Civil Rights

In 1945, even before completing her law degree at Columbia, Motley began the search for a position as a clerk in a local law firm, the typical first step in the career path of freshly minted young lawyers. However, after a few interviews in which she barely got past the outer office, the young black woman realized that, because of her gender and her race, it would be next to impossible for her to be given a job in a private law firm. She decided, instead, to apply for a position as law clerk at the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), a legal aid society overseen by attorney Thurgood Marshall during the years prior to his 1967 appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Marshall would become a mentor to the young law student, and Motley would remain at the Fund for the next twenty years, becoming assistant counsel in 1950, and the organization's principal trial lawyer in the decade that followed. She was called to the bar of the State of New York in 1948.

As principal legal counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund, Motley was almost exclusively involved in the litigation of civil rights cases, working to end discrimination against African Americans in areas of education, housing, employment, transportation, and public accommodations. In 1954 she wrote the briefs presented to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing the plaintiff's side in Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark civil rights case that resulted in the elimination of the "separate but equal" clause that had allowed the continued segregation of many of the nation's public schools.

In the years that followed, Motley would be asked to argue many cases involving the issues raised in Brown, appearing in state and federal courts around the country. Ten of her cases would be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court; of those, she won nine. During her travels, she gained experience working with many judges, one of the most notable of whom was Ohio justice Florence E. Allen, the first woman to sit on the bench of either a state supreme court or a U.S. Court of Appeals. In 1995 Motley would be the recipient of the New York Women's Bar Association's Florence E. Allen award. The award held a special meaning for Motley; as she told the Columbia University Record, "My role model as a female judge was Florence Allen."

In tandem with her work for the NAACP, Motley began a part-time career in government as a member of the New York State Advisory Council on Employment and Unemployment Insurance, a position she held from 1958 to 1965. Her government job became full-time in 1963 when she served out the unexpired term of New York State Senator James Watson. The following year she was elected to the state senate in her own right, and introduced and supported legislation to establish much-needed low-and middle-in-come housing in New York's urban areas before resigning the following year to pursue another opportunity in politics. In February of 1965, Motley was elected by the New York City Council to fill a one-year vacancy as president of the Manhattan borough, and she still holds the record as the only woman to yet occupy that position. Her success in that capacity earned her a full four-year term in office, during which time Motley developed a program for the revitalization of Harlem and East Harlem, winning the city $700, 000 in funds to plan much-needed improvements for impoverished areas of New York City.

Gains Historic Judgeship

In 1965, on the advice of Supreme Court Justice Ramsey Clark, who had been impressed by Motley's arguments before his court, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Motley for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the bench that hears all cases arising out of the federal trial courts in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. However, opposition to this nomination was so vocal that Johnson withdrew Motley's name and appointed her, instead, as one of twenty-eight U.S. District judges for the Southern District of New York. This post, which was confirmed by the Senate in 1966, made her the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge. While Motley had to work twice as hard as her white male colleagues to earn the respect of attorneys and her fellow justices, she eventually gained a reputation as a respected and fair-minded jurist.

After serving the court as district judge for over a decade and a half, in 1982 Motley advanced to the position of Chief Justice, holding this post until 1986 with her appointment as Senior Justice. As a justice on the federal judicial circuit, Motley has been privileged to hear cases involving diverse, often sophisticated points of law dealing with issues regarding the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes, and disagreements between residents of different states, many of them large corporations.

In 1982 she sentenced six Croatian nationalists to prison terms of over twenty years for murder, arson, and extortion; in 1991, in Basic Books v. Kinko's Graphics Corp., the issue of copyright infringement prompted a ruling by Motley that stores that photocopy and sell excerpts of textbooks for inclusion in course packets were required to pay royalties to publishers, despite the fact that such photocopies were for educational purposes; and in 1994, in a case involving Vassar College, Motley ruled that the denial of tenure to a former biology professor was because she was married-and thus discriminatory-rather than because of poor evaluations. In her lengthy written opinion, Motley noted that the evidence presented at trial showed a pattern of denying tenure to all women educators in the area of the sciences that extended back over three decades, and that marriage was looked upon by the college as synonymous with needing time off to raise children.

In a 1987 decision, Motley addressed the issue of probable cause in detaining individuals suspected of violating the law, ruling that, without exceptional circumstances, suspects cannot be detained by police for more than twenty-four hours without a court ruling that sufficient evidence exists to justify the arrest. New York Legal Aid Society attorney Caesar Cirigiano, who had filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiff, was quoted in the New York Times as calling Motley's ruling "the most important decision in the area of defendants' rights in the last ten years."

Long Career Brings Deserved Recognition

In appreciation for her long career in the law, Motley has received many honors and accolades. She was the recipient of the 1984 Candace Award from the National Coalition of One Hundred Black Women, and, in 1988, was asked to address an audience at the University of California at Los Angeles as part of the Thurgood Marshall Lecture series. Her topic, "Thurgood Marshall: The Early Years, " recalled the period she worked alongside the esteemed jurist at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In the fall of 1997 she served as jurist-in-residence at the Indiana University School of Law.

Further Reading

Hine, Darlene Clark, Black Women in America, Carlson, 1993.

Almanac of the Federal Judicial, Volume 1, 1998, pp. 66-68.

American Lawyer, June 1991.

Columbia University Record, June 9, 1995.

New York Times, July 7, 1987, p. 12.

Wall Street Journal, May 17, 1994.

Yale Law Journal, November 1991.

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"Constance Baker Motley." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 30 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Motley, Constance Baker

MOTLEY, CONSTANCE BAKER

Constance Baker Motley played an integral role in defending legislation that was created to protect the rights of all Americans. Her work on landmark civil rights cases in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s helped to abolish segregation in schools and changed the way in which the U.S. Constitution is interpreted. Motley was the first African-American woman to be elected to the New York State Senate; the first African-American and the first woman to be elected as Manhattan borough president; and the first female African American federal judge.

Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on September 14, 1921, one of nine children. The America in which Motley grew up was segregated. As a child going to a beach in Milford,

Connecticut, Motley was turned away because of the color of her skin. When she returned home, she asked her parents, both West Indian immigrants, why the color of her skin meant that she could not go swimming. Her parents were unfamiliar with U.S. segregation and had no answer.

As a teenager, Motley became fascinated with U.S. history, particularly the Civil War, abraham lincoln, and the emancipation proclamation. She sought out role models in her community to help her focus her interests and began attending meetings at a local adult

community center. At that center, she came in contact with George W. Crawford, a prominent black lawyer in New Haven, who told her about the case of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337, 59 S. Ct. 232, 83 L. Ed. 208 (1938).

At the time of Gaines, Missouri was like many southern states that maintained all-white professional schools, sending qualified minority law school applicants to schools in other states. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gaines that Missouri's admissions practice did not offer an equal educational opportunity to minority students and that it therefore violated the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment. That verdict meant that many states had to re-evaluate their school systems and either create new schools specifically for black students or desegregate existing white graduate schools. Crawford told Motley that he believed that the Gaines case would prompt states to create separate schools to avoid desegregation.

The Gaines case inspired Motley to attend law school. She wanted to be a lawyer in order to fight for civil rights, as Abraham Lincoln had done. However, when she approached her father about following her dream, he told her that college was a financial impossibility on his wages as a chef at a Yale fraternity house.

After graduating from high school as an honor student in 1939, Baker spent 18 months working for the National Youth Administration in New Haven. Disturbed by blacks' lack of interest in the community center, she decided to address her peers at a meeting at the center. As president of the New Haven Youth Council, Motley spoke about the apparent apathy of blacks toward the center, which she suggested stemmed from the lack of black involvement in setting policy and designing projects for the center. Clarence Blakeslee, the successful, white businessman who had been the primary donor for the community center, heard Motley speak and was very impressed. He offered to pay for Motley's education.

Accepting the offer, Motley attended New York University, where she received a bachelor of arts degree in economics. She then went to Columbia University School of Law, where she received her law degree in 1946. While still at Columbia, Motley got a job with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, clerking for chief counsel thurgood marshall, who would later sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Motley joined the NAACP during world war ii and worked on many cases involving black servicemen. These soldiers told of segregation in the armed forces and protested that punishments given to black soldiers were outrageous compared with those given to white soldiers for similar infractions. Motley worked on hundreds of court-martial cases that earned the NAACP much notoriety. Her work with the NAACP enabled her to try cases in federal courts and even to try ten cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Motley often was the first African-American attorney, and usually the first female African-American attorney, to be seen in many of those courtrooms.

In the late 1940s, the NAACP decided to focus on eliminating segregation in education. Motley's first case after she had completed law school took the Gaines case a step further. It involved Herman Marion Sweatt (Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629, 70 S. Ct. 848, 94 L. Ed. 1114 [1949]) who was denied admission to the law school at the University of Texas solely because he was black. Under pressure from the NAACP, the school set up a makeshift classroom for Sweatt in the basement of a building, obtained books for him, and assigned him four professors from the faculty. However, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the state had violated the Equal Protection Clause because Sweatt's inability to interact with fellow classmates made his education inferior. Motley tried other cases involving segregation in professional schools and was a driving force in reforming their admission practices, thus paving the way for minority professionals in this country.

In 1954, Motley helped to write legal briefs for the landmark case brown v. board of education of topeka, kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954). In Brown, the Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The case was a major victory for civil rights advocates and fueled Motley's hope for real change in U.S. attitudes toward minority groups.

"The struggle for racial equality is like a prairie fire. You may succeed in stamping out the struggle for equality in one corner and, lo and behold, it appears soon thereafter somewhere else."
—Constance Baker Motley

In the 1960s, Motley turned her attention toward minority children. She was concerned about the inadequate schooling for black children, the slum conditions in which many were forced to live, and the high rates of unemployment in black communities. She wanted new legislation to address these problems. In 1964, Motley became the first African-American woman to be elected to the New York State Senate. In 1965, she relinquished her Senate seat when she was elected president of the borough of Manhattan. From that post, she worked to revitalize Harlem and to advance urban renewal.

In 1966, when President lyndon b. johnson appointed Motley to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, protest from southerners held up her appointment from January to August. Later, when President Johnson nominated Motley to the U.S. Court of Appeals, male opposition pressured him into withdrawing her name.

Since she became a federal judge, Motley has ruled on more than 2,500 cases. In 1982, Motley became chief judge of the court. She assumed senior status in 1986.

In 1993, Motley was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, and in 1998 she published Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography. In the new millennium, Motley continued to hear cases as a senior U.S. district court judge. She has been the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Equal Justice Award. In 2001, President bill clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal.

further readings

Berry, Dawn Bradley. 1996. The 50 Most Influential Women in American Law. Los Angeles: Contemporary Books.

Gilbert, Lynn, and Gaylen Moore. 1981. Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Have Shaped Our Times. New York: Potter.

Orfield, Gary, Susan E. Eaton, and Elaine R. Jones. 1997. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.

Plowden, Martha Ward. 1993. Famous Firsts of Black Women. Gretna, La.: Pelican.

Stoddard, Hope. 1970. Famous American Women. New York: Cromwell.

cross-references

Civil Rights Movement; Integration; School Desegregation.

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