Motley, Constance Baker (1921—)

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Motley, Constance Baker (1921—)

African-American lawyer, politician, and judge whose actions and decisions furthered the cause of civil rights in America. Name variations: Constance Baker; Connie Motley. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, on September 14, 1921; daughter of Willoughby Alba Baker and Rachel (Huggins) Baker; attended Fisk University, 1941–42; transferred to New York University, graduating 1943; entered Columbia Law School, 1943, graduated, 1946; married Joel Motley, in 1946; children: one son, Joel Jr.

Member of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (1946–63); member of the New York State House of Representatives (1964–65); ManhattanBorough president (1965–66); Federal District Court Judge (1966—).

At age 17, while attending a lecture on the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Gaines v. the State of Missouri, Constance Baker Motley was struck by the implications of this first civilrights case to be heard by the Court in the 20th century. The case had concerned an African-American man by the name of Gaines who had applied for admission to the University of Missouri's all-white law school. The university, having refused him admission, had offered to pay his tuition at any out-of-state law school which would accept him. Such a proposal was a strategy used by many Southern universities at the time in an effort to meet the mandates of a federal "separate-but-equal" doctrine requiring all states to provide equivalent educational opportunities to both blacks and whites. Gaines had challenged the constitutionality of the university's actions, and the Supreme Court had ruled that all states must provide comparable educational opportunities within their own borders. Motley learned that while the case itself was not monumental, it nevertheless represented the possibility that the 14th Amendment's "equal protection" clause might be further applied to the issues of racial inequality in America. On that day in the late 1930s, Motley determined that she wanted to become a lawyer to personally facilitate such an application.

Born Constance Baker in 1921, one of 12 children in a family of limited means, Motley knew that it would not be easy for her to get to college. Her father was a cook at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where Constance had been born, and his salary could hardly cover the daily expenses of maintaining such a large family, let alone the expense of a college education for even just one of his children. Undaunted, Motley graduated from high school and decided to work for a year, in the hopes of earning enough money to pay at least part of her college tuition. She would still have to receive a scholarship to make her dreams a reality, but as a bright and inquisitive student with an outstanding record of high school achievement, she felt certain that such a scholarship could be procured.

But 18-year-old Motley immediately encountered the insidious racial prejudice of the North. Noticing an advertisement for a dental assistant's position requiring no previous experience, she phoned the dentist and, after speaking with him, was enthusiastically asked to come to his office for a formal interview. Motley set out post-haste for the office, which was just three blocks away, and upon her arrival was met by a startled dentist who informed her that the position had been filled. Hurt, but not surprised, she eventually found a job with the National Youth Administration in New Haven.

Motley had been working for 18 months when she decided one evening to attend a meeting at the community center in Dixwell, a section of New Haven which was populated largely by African-Americans. The center's benefactor was Clarence Blakeslee, a wealthy white industrialist. He and the other members of the center's board were concerned by the lack of interest which the residents of Dixwell had been exhibiting in the community center, and they raised the question of why the apathy was so prevalent. Motley rose to her feet and suggested that it was because the black members of the community had not been given any responsibility for running the center; every member of the board of directors was either a white administrator from Yale or a white entrepreneur from downtown. The African-American residents of Dixwell, she asserted, could hardly be expected to take an interest in something which did not really belong to them.

Blakeslee was intrigued by Motley's assertiveness and by her astute observations. The next day, he sought out her identity, and, upon learning that she had been an honor student in high school, he telephoned her and made an astounding offer. It was his wish, he told her, that she be properly educated, and he was prepared to pay all of the costs of her education, both in college and in graduate school.

Motley decided to pursue at least part of her education in the South. Her understanding of what it meant to be black in America had been severely restricted by the fact that she had lived only in New Haven and had traveled very little outside of the state of Connecticut. She researched her options, and, after having read that Fisk University was one of the best black colleges in the country, decided to move to Nashville, Tennessee.

Her own parents had been immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis, and Motley had known only working-class African-Americans. At Fisk, however, she met middle-class African-American students whose parents, and sometimes even grandparents, had enjoyed the benefits of a college education. Her peers were the offspring of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business people, and Motley developed a deep belief in the power of education to uplift the African-American community.

She also encountered in the South a white hostility toward African-Americans which she had never experienced in the North. Motley was familiar with the type of people who would refuse to hire blacks or even to live in the same neighborhood with them, but before she moved to Tennessee, she had never encountered the type of people who essentially saw blacks as being anthropologically and biologically inferior to whites. On her first visit home, she brought a "colored only" sign with her to show her parents; to her, Southern attitudes were so amazingly ridiculous that she did not think anyone from New Haven would believe her without proof. It was the Southern white attitude toward blacks which in part influenced her decision to transfer to New York University after having spent just 15 months at Fisk.

It should be noted that these 15 months spent in Nashville comprised half of her entire undergraduate career. Acutely aware of the time lost between high school and college, Motley attended summer classes to make up for it and was able to complete her degree in just two and a half years. After graduation in 1943, she attended Columbia Law School for the next three years, graduating in 1946. She married Joel Motley, who entered the real estate business, shortly thereafter, and took up a full-time position with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. She was the first woman to join the Defense Fund, which at that time included just three other lawyers: Robert Carter, Edward Dudley, and Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 would become an associate justice to the Supreme Court. The Defense Fund was, and still is, widely regarded as being the legal arm of the civil-rights movement. Anthony Lewis of The New York Times has called it "the creator of race relations law," since the Fund's lawyers have, over the years, "framed most of the civil rights cases that gave concrete meaning to the Constitution's generalities."

Idon't believe anyone else could have survived two and a half years of Mississippi courts.

—James H. Meredith

Throughout the 17 years that she served on the Defense Fund, Motley participated in some of the most groundbreaking cases in civil-rights history. Beginning in 1947, she helped to formulate an argument for Herman Sweatt in his case against the University of Texas. An African-American, Sweatt had applied to the University of Texas Law School. In compliance with the 1938 Supreme Court ruling that a school could not force a black student to get his education in another state, the University of Texas had created a separate law school for Sweatt in the basement of a building in Austin. Motley and other members of the Defense Fund argued that the university could not possibly provide Sweatt with an "equal" education under such circumstances, since the ability to discuss with one's peers the dynamics of the law was an essential part of any legal education. In 1950, the Supreme Court agreed with the Defense Fund, stating that the white law school "obviously possessed to a far greater degree those qualities which are incapable of measurement but which make for greatness in a law school."

Motley also participated in the preparation of the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, which in 1954 effectively declared unconstitutional many of the segregationist policies of the Jim Crow South. This case exemplifies the fact that the Supreme Court is not bound by precedent, even precedent set by the court itself. Segregation had been declared viable by the Court in 1896, as a consequence of the Plessy v. Ferguson case. Homer Plessy, a man who was one-eighth African-American, had challenged the constitutionality of a law under which he had been arrested for entering a "white-only" railway car in Louisiana. The Supreme Court ruled that Plessy's argument was based on the "underlying fallacy" that the "enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority." The doctrine of "separate but equal" was thus permitted to rule the South unrestrained well into the 20th century.

In an argument articulated by Thurgood Marshall and researched in part by Constance Baker Motley, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund called upon the Court to reevaluate its decision in the Plessy case. Brown v. Board of Education involved a fourth-grader named Linda Brown , who had been denied admission to an all-white elementary school near her home in Topeka, Kansas, on the grounds of "separate but equal." Marshall, Motley, and other members of the NAACP's legal defense staff argued that in the area of education, "separate" necessarily connoted "unequal." The problem was not simply one of inadequate facilities for black children; that situation could, and had been, remedied in many school districts. The problem was that segregation had been shown to have a detrimental effect upon black children, in that it instilled in them a sense of inferiority. This sense of inferiority, in turn, inhibited the children from realizing their full potential as adult citizens. Noting that the 14th Amendment denied any state the ability to "abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens in the United States," the Defense Fund argued that segregation in public schools effectively amounted to a violation of the 14th Amendment. In 1954, the Supreme Court agreed.

For the next ten years, Motley would work tirelessly to ensure that the Court's decision was implemented. She represented elementary-level children in twelve Southern and three Northern states; she defended civil-rights leaders such as Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., when they were arrested for demonstrating in Birmingham and Selma; and perhaps most notably, she defended James Meredith in his historic case against the University of Mississippi.

Meredith's case was brought in response to a staggering array of hurdles which the University of Mississippi had constructed to prevent his admission, despite the Supreme Court's recent ruling against segregated schools. His initial application for transfer had been denied on the grounds that it had been submitted on January 31, 1961, and that the school, in its own words, had found it necessary "to discontinue consideration of all applications … received after January 25, 1961." Meredith appealed to the NAACP, and Motley was assigned to the case.

Motley's first tactic was to have him reapply, after she had checked his application to ensure that it properly met every requirement. There was one requirement which Meredith was not going to be able to meet: six letters of recommendation from Ole Miss alumni. He did not know any graduates from the all-white institution, so he submitted six letters of reference from members of his black community instead. Motley assured him that this "recommendation hurdle" had already been mounted in a decision handed down in Georgia, and that he had the power of precedent on his side if Mississippi tried to use it to block his admission.

The university did use it to block his admission, despite the federal court's ruling in Georgia. Additionally, the registrar explained that Meredith's application for transfer was being denied because the institution which he was already attending, the all-black Jackson State College, was not a recognized member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. The fact that Jackson, as a state school, was governed by the same Board of Trustees that governed Ole Miss seemed to make no difference.

Motley spent a grueling 15 months arguing Meredith's case, and it seemed that the University of Mississippi was not her only foe. The back wall of the courtroom in which she worked was decorated with a mural depicting the glories of the Old South, and each day she was forced to face positive images of slavery which she found to be demeaning and utterly false. Additionally, Judge Sidney C. Mize, who initially heard the case, denied Motley a restraining order which would have allowed Meredith temporary admission to the university's summer session, and he delayed his decision on the case for four months, during which time Meredith's attendance at Jackson State was bringing him closer and closer to graduation. If Motley did not succeed soon in securing Meredith's acceptance at Old Miss, the case would be moot. And, she finally had the reality of the Jim Crow South to deal with. Because the 1954 Brown ruling had declared unconstitutional only segregation in public schools, a policy of racial separation was still the norm in all other facets of Southern life. She had a difficult time finding restaurants which would serve her, and, because there were no suitable "colored hotels" in the area, for accommodations Motley was forced to rely upon the good will of African-American residents of Jackson and Biloxi, many of whom had their stores and houses consequently vandalized by whites in the area.

On February 3, 1962, Judge Mize ruled that Meredith's race had not been a factor in the university's decision to deny him admission. Motley appealed the case, and on June 25, 1962, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "James H. Meredith's application was turned down solely because he was a Negro." The court ordered the university to enroll Meredith—an order which was openly defied by the governor of Mississippi, Ross R. Barnett. When Meredith attempted to enter the school's main hall, a riot erupted which lasted for 15 hours and was quelled only after 23,000 federal troops had been sent to the area.

Motley's career with the NAACP ended in February 1964, when she accepted a position in the New York state legislature vacated by State Senator James L. Watson, following his appointment to the New York civil court. Motley served for the remaining few months of Watson's term and was elected to the position in her own right in November 1964. She was the first black woman to serve in the state legislature, and indeed, at that time, she was the only female member of the entire political body.

It was not long, however, before she was nominated to fill another political vacancy; this time the position was that of Manhattan Borough president. In February 1965, the New York City council voted five to three to offer her the position which had been left vacant by Edward Dudley's appointment to the state supreme court. It has been reported that Motley may have had some misgivings about accepting the position, because she thought that it might interfere with a possible appointment to a federal judgeship. She did accept the position, however, and in fact ran for reelection in September 1965. As borough president, she directed her attention to issues of racism within the parameters of the city, attacking construction unions that practiced blatant discrimination against minorities and personally filing charges against taxi drivers who refused her as a customer because she was black. She also advocated that certain key municipal projects be located in Harlem, in an effort to revitalize the economy of that area.

While Motley was serving as borough president, Senator Robert F. Kennedy nominated her for the position of judge in the federal district court circuit. In January 1966, her nomination was confirmed. Many civil-rights activists were concerned that her ascension to the position would actually constitute a loss for the movement, because she had, as an attorney, shown herself to be vital to the movement's success. Motley allayed these fears by pointing out: "It will help overcome discrimination if the majority of the community has an opportunity to see Negroes in positions of power and of equality." She added that she could also help the women's rights movement. She lamented that for the bulk of her career, she had been "too busy eliminating discrimination against race to fight discrimination against women."

In fact, some of her decisions have been viewed by many as victories for the women's rights movement. In 1978, she ruled that women reporters should be allowed to enter locker rooms at professional sporting events, thus ensuring that the field of sports broadcasting would be open to women. In 1994, she ruled that Vassar had been guilty of sex and age discrimination when, in 1986, it had denied tenure to Professor Cynthia J. Fisher because she was married and a mother.

In October 1995, Constance Baker Motley was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. In her acceptance speech, she chose to focus not on the plight of women, nor even on the plight of African-Americans. She chose instead to honor Clarence Blakeslee, the man whose initial generosity had made possible her education and thus her career.


Brenner, Marie. "Annals of Law: Judge Motley's Verdict," in The New Yorker. May 16, 1994, pp. 65–71.

Costikyan, Edward. Politics in the Public Interest. NY: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966.

Duckett, Alfred. Changing of the Guard: The New Breed of Black Politicians. NY: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1972.

Lamson, Peggy. Few Are Chosen: American Women in Political Life Today. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Magner, Denise. "Judge Says Vassar Discriminated Against Married Women," in Chronicle of Higher Education. May 25, 1994, p. A17.

suggested reading:

Hunter-Gault, Charlayne. In My Place. NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1992.

Meredith, James H. Three Years in Mississippi. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1966.

Maura Jane Farrelly , graduate student in history at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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Motley, Constance Baker (1921—)

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