Motley, Constance Juanita Baker (“Connie”)

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Motley, Constance Juanita Baker (“Connie”)

(b. 14 September 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut; d. 28 September 2005 in New York City), prominent civil rights lawyer who became the first African American and woman to hold a series of key legal, political, and judicial roles, including serving as a federal court judge.

Motley was the ninth of twelve children born to Willoughby Alva and Rachel (Huggins) Baker, black immigrants from the West Indian island of Nevis. Her father worked as a chef for students at one of the private eating clubs at nearby Yale University. Her mother was a homemaker who founded the New Haven chapter of the NAACP. Although Motley recalled the small black population of the New Haven of her youth as integrated into the larger society and free of fear and racial conflict, the limited economic opportunities facing the family weighed heavily on her. In high school she became interested in politics, race relations, black history, and the legal profession and became involved in civic activities. At age fifteen she decided to become a lawyer; although she received no encouragement, she remained undeterred, a hallmark trait. She graduated with honors from New Haven High School in 1939. Lacking the funds to attend college, she worked for the local branch of the National Youth Administration by refinishing chairs and sewing.

Motley’s big break came in 1940, when a major white New Haven philanthropist, Clarence Blakeslee, heard her speak at a meeting at a community center he had funded. The tall, imposing eighteen-year-old criticized the governance of the center, specifically the lack of input of black people. Blakeslee, impressed by her presentation, offered to pay for her college and law school education, although he was skeptical of a woman becoming a lawyer. As a result of Blakeslee’s generosity, Motley attended first Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and then New York University, where she graduated with an AB in economics in 1943. She then attended Columbia Law School in New York City, graduating with her LLB in 1946. On 18 August 1946 she married the real estate broker Joel Wilson Motley, Jr., her partner for nearly sixty years. In 1952 they had a son, who also became a lawyer.

As a law student Motley interned at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Following her graduation from law school, she joined the LDF staff as a law clerk, working for Thurgood Marshall, the LDF’s chief counsel and a future U.S. Supreme Court justice. The first cases that Motley worked on at the LDF challenged states within the framework of “separate but equal,” established by the Supreme Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1949 she became an assistant counsel with the LDF. That same year she assisted Robert Carter, later a senior federal district court judge, in her first trial, which sought equal pay with white teachers for black teachers in Mississippi. The case introduced her to race relations in Mississippi, including the Works Progress Administration mural of the Old South hanging in the federal courthouse. In another early case, in 1950 the Supreme Court ordered the University of Texas School of Law to admit Heman Sweatt because the separate law school it had created for him was not equal, thus setting the stage for the direct attack on segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Motley was the only woman on the team of lawyers under Marshall that brought the five cases directly challenging the segregation of public schools in the early 1950s that were consolidated before the Supreme Court as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. On 17 May 1954 the Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision striking down the doctrine of “separate but equal,” at least in public education, and starting the long process of dismantling state-sanctioned racial segregation in all aspects of American life. On 31 May 1955 the Court followed with a decision on how to implement desegregation, requiring that it be carried out with “all deliberate speed,” an oxymoron that led to massive resistance to the Brown decision. The fight against that massive resistance largely shaped the rest of Motley’s career as a civil rights lawyer.

Following Brown, in case after case, Motley, famous for her dogged persistence, led the LDF’s attack on state-sponsored segregation in public schools and other facilities in trial courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court. As the lead lawyer either at trial or on appeal in dozens of public school desegregation cases throughout the South, Motley enforced Brown directly, attacking all of the delaying tactics of southern school systems. She also sued to desegregate transportation facilities, public housing and hospitals, motels, restaurants, parks and pools, libraries, and even golf courses.

Motley’s most famous desegregation cases were those against nearly all the southern public universities, including those of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and, most famously, Mississippi. Among her well-known plaintiffs were Charlayne Hunter (second University of Georgia case) and Harvey Gantt (Clemson College, South Carolina). These cases sparked lengthy battles through the court systems, often confronting not only recalcitrant school administrators and trustees but also governors and racist mobs.

The case that brought Motley international fame was filed in 1961 on behalf of James Meredith, who was seeking admission to the University of Mississippi. After litigating for more than a year and a half in what one friendly appellate judge called “the eerie atmosphere of never-never land,” Motley finally secured Meredith’s admission to Ole Miss. At that point, the U.S. Justice Department tried to take over the case. Motley was so angered by their presumptuousness, particularly since they had offered no assistance or protection up to that point, that she slammed the phone on Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s aide. In the face of public resistance by Governor Ross Barnett, Meredith’s admission was finally secured in October 1962, with the help of U.S. marshals and the backing of federal troops after a riot that killed two people.

During her work in the South, above all in Mississippi, Motley faced both a hostile judiciary and the prospect of violence. There were federal judges who would not look at her; she stayed in homes that had been bombed or were easy targets for attacks; she was trailed by the Mississippi state police; and her host in Mississippi, the civil rights activist Medgar Evers, was murdered by a sniper in 1963. Apart from the desegregation cases, Motley represented demonstrators, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr. In Albany, Georgia, in 1962, and again during the famous campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Motley obtained critical court orders for King. In Birmingham, she secured an order requiring the reinstatement of more than a thousand public school students who had been expelled for demonstrating.

Before completing her career as an attorney, Motley argued ten cases before the Supreme Court, winning all but one (and the Court later overturned that decision). These cases addressed the rights of sit-in demonstrators, desegregation of schools and other public facilities, the right to counsel at arraignment in capital cases, and the right to challenge the exclusion of blacks from juries. In 1964 Motley entered politics, becoming the first African-American woman elected to the New York State Senate. The following year, she became the president of the Manhattan Borough, the first woman to hold the post. In that role, she marched with King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965.

In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Motley to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which included Manhattan, the Bronx, and six other counties north of New York City. After much resistance from racist senators and sexist judges, she became the first African-American woman to be a federal judge. Motley became well known for her regal bearing and firm command of the courtroom. She was an imposing presence who brooked no nonsense but also ensured that every litigant, no matter how humble, had his or her day in court. In close to forty years on the bench at one of the busiest courts in the country, Motley presided over trials and issued pivotal decisions in areas as diverse as copyright, racketeering, bankruptcy, admiralty, securities, first amendment protest rights, sex discrimination, and the rights of homeless people, criminal defendants, and prisoners. In one of her best-known decisions, in 1978 she ordered the Yankees to permit a female sports reporter into the team’s locker room, breaking down a major bastion of male exclusivity. She became the district’s first African-American, female chief judge in 1982, a position she held until 1986, when she took on a reduced caseload as a senior judge.

Over the years, Motley published numerous speeches and articles and received countless awards and honorary degrees. In 2001 President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal. The following year the jury assembly room of the Southern District federal courthouse was dedicated in her honor, and in 2003 her portrait was hung in that room. Motley continued working as a senior judge until her death at age eighty-four of congestive heart failure at New York University Downtown Hospital. Her remains were cremated.

Motley’s contribution to American life spanned several careers, each trailblazing and significant on its own. She was many firsts. As a woman and as an African American, she battled sexism and racism personally, while litigating to dismantle the major systems of official racial oppression in the United States. As a judge, she broke down barriers with her high standards and profound sense of fairness, and she became a champion of women’s rights as well as those of others lacking a voice in our society. Motley remains a role model for generations of Americans for whom she opened the doors of opportunity.

Motley’s papers are housed at the libraries of the Columbia Law School in New York City and Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her autobiography is Equal Justice Under Law (1998). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 29 Sept. 2005).

Richard Blum

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Motley, Constance Juanita Baker (“Connie”)

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