Federal Judge Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley, an eminent civil rights lawyer and a principal trial lawyer for the NAACP, appeared before state and federal courts throughout the United States in numerous civil rights matters. In addition to appearing before state and federal courts throughout the United States, she argued ten cases before the U. S. Supreme Court, winning nine, which helped to secure equal rights for black Americans. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Motley as judge on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She was the first black woman serve as a federal judge.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Motley had not experienced segregation as a child.   Motley grew up in a working class family and distinguished herself as a brilliant student in secondary school. Genevieve Thompson, a professional social worker, and other community activists including Mary McLeod Bethune and Dorothy Height, influenced Motley to learn compassion for the poor, to become politically oriented, and to identify with the plight of black America. She finished high school in 1940, worked in a youth opportunity job, and served as president of the New Haven Negro Youth Council, which she helped to organize. Motley enrolled in Fisk University in 1941. She remembered that her first exposure to segregation was in the Jim Crow train cars she traveled in to Nashville while attending Fisk. She transferred to New York University in 1942 and graduated with honors in 1943. Before Motley graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1946, Thurgood Marshall hired her as a clerk with the LDF. After completing law school, Motley continued her work with the NAACP and collaborated with Marshall, Walter White, and other NAACP luminaries as they fashioned the legal program to make a frontal attack on segregation.

Motley recalled that whenever Marshall and his chief assistant, Robert Carter, were busy with other civil rights cases, Marshall would send Motley or LDF counsel Jack Greenberg to represent the LDF. Motley noted that the national NAACP lawyers had become experts in segregation cases and they would assist local lawyers with writing briefs and making the necessary constitutional arguments. The first case that Motley worked on was Sweatt v. Painter , in which the LDF succeeded in gaining the admission of Herman Sweatt to the University of Texas.

Motley was also one of the lawyers who helped write the briefs in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. She was the foremost, skilled legal tactician who directed the dismantling of legal segregation in the Deep South. She played a   pivotal role in the litigation that resulted in the admission of Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter to the University of Georgia, James Meredith to the University of Mississippi, Vivian Malone and James Hood to the University of Alabama, and Harvey Gantt to Clemson College in South Carolina.

In a 1997 interview with Foot Soldier Project Director, Maurice C. Daniels, Motley commented succinctly on the reasons that she devoted her career to equal justice and fighting against segregation: “The fact that I’m black may have had something to do with it. I don’t know anyone better to fight for me than me.”

Sources: Constance Baker Motley, Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography of Constance Baker Motley (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998); Maurice C. Daniels, Horace T. Ward: Desegregation of the University of Georgia, Civil Rights Advocacy, and Jurisprudence (Washington, D. C.: Howard University Press, 2004);

Constance Baker Motley, interview with Maurice C. Daniels and Janice Reaves, New York, NY, March 30, 1995.