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The Motley Woman

Constance Baker Motley

Daniel Krall
Constance Baker Motley

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 12/28/2005

Constance Baker Motley was not a glamorous celebrity, even by People Who Died standards. But in a time of accepted sexism and state-sanctioned segregation, she never allowed anyone or anything to stop her from pursuing her goals. As a result she became one of those achievers whose biographies are littered with the words “first” and “only.” She was the only woman on the Brown v. Board of Education legal team; she was the first African-American woman to argue a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, to serve in the New York State Senate, or to be appointed to the federal bench. And though Motley never enjoyed the iconic status of the late Rosa Parks, she worked on some of this country’s most important civil-rights cases, facing down hostile judges, politicians, and even mobs.

Motley was born in 1921 in New Haven, Conn., one of 12 children of immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Growing up in a part of New Haven heavily populated by immigrants and mixed-race families afforded Motley a childhood surprisingly free from racism. “Fear and racial conflict were simply not part of the landscape,” Motley wrote in her autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law. Motley decided to attend Nashville, Tenn.’s Fisk University in 1941, partially because she was eager for the sense of community offered by a historically black school, but her first experiences with the South brought with them harsh realizations. When the train she took to Nashville stopped in Cincinnati, she was forced to get off the train and board a newly added car marked colored. “Although I had known this would happen,” she wrote, “I was both frightened and humiliated.”

Motley eventually transferred to New York University (where she met her husband, fellow student Joel Motley) and graduated in 1943. While attending Columbia University Law School, she was tapped by Thurgood Marshall to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. With Marshall and the defense fund, she worked on a number of landmark cases including the first in which the Supreme Court ordered a black student admitted to a white state school, helping in the long struggle to reverse the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” ruling. In 1949, Motley began successfully arguing cases on her own. The courts and the media were so unused to dealing with female lawyers that there was controversy over what to call her. “[L]ocal newspapers always called me ‘the Motley woman,’” she wrote. She also worked with Marshall on Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that separate was not in fact equal.

In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a civil-rights demonstration in Birmingham, Ala. The students who participated in the demonstration were expelled just one week before graduation; at King’s request, Motley and the Legal Defense and Educational Fund were able to reverse the expulsions. Motley went on to represent many civil-rights protesters, and at the 1963 March on Washington, she sat on the platform while King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In all, Motley argued 10 cases in front of the Supreme Court, with the majority finding for her in nine. In his autobiography, The Court Years, Justice William Douglas wrote that Motley was “in the top 10 of any group of advocates at the appellate level in this country.”

Motley left the Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1963 and won a seat in the New York State Senate the following year. In 1965, voters elected her Manhattan borough president, the highest elected position held by an African-American person in New York City at that time. In January 1966, Motley was called to the White House, she believed to discuss a possible appointment to the federal bench. Instead, President Johnson offered her the appointment on the spot, making her the first African-American female federal judge. She sat on the bench until her death on Sept. 28 at age 84.

Like Parks, who died a month later, Motley struggled so that we would have the luxury of forgetting how hard her struggle was, but her legacy continues. “Becoming part of history is a special experience, reserved for only a few,” she wrote. “It’s like earning a law degree or a Ph.D.; nobody can take it away from you. You may be forgotten, but . . . you will always be there.”

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