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Women's History Month

Constance Baker Motley

By Charly B. Gay, Nancy Phillips
On March 31, 2020

Constance Baker Motley first met Martin Luther King, Jr., in July 1962, after successfully arguing that protesters had the right to demonstrate in Albany, Georgia. Famed civil rights attorney William Kuntsler is at right. Credit: Library of Congress

Constance Baker Motley, who was born in New Haven, Connecticut, was an African American civil rights activist, lawyer, judge, state senator, and Borough President of Manhattan, New York City. She was the first African American woman appointed to the federal judiciary, serving as a United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Constance Baker Motley was born Sept. 14, 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut to West Indian parents who had migrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean Island of Nevis. She was the ninth child of 14. Motley attended Columbia Law School in 1946 and was hired by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) where she was the first woman attorney appointed. She was an assistant attorney in many cases, including the one with Thurgood Marshall arguing the case Brown v. Board of Education, where she wrote the original complaint. 

Additionally, she was appointed to the Meredith v. Fair case. With her efforts, James Meredith became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962. As a civil rights activist, Baker visited churches that were firebombed, sang freedom songs, and visited Rev. Martin Luther King while he sat in jail, as well as spending a night with civil rights activist Medgar Evers under armed guard.

Further, in 1978, Motley successfully argued that women in sports broadcasting must be allowed into a Major League Baseball locker room. Motley credits Thurgood Marshall for her successful career. In a personal journal article dedicated to Marshall, Baker – Motley wrote, “Lost in the shuffle may well be his personal, unique contributions to the advancement of women in the law…[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.”

Over the course of her lifetime, Baker Motley won a plethora of awards. She received a Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1984. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal. The NAACP awarded her the Spingarn Medal, the organization’s highest honor, in 2003. 

In addition to her awards she has also received over 10 honorary degrees from colleges and universities all over the country. Motley was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 because of her many contributions to civil rights and the legal system.  Of the 10 cases that she took to the U.S. Supreme Court between October 1961 and December 1964, she won nine.

Perhaps Baker Motley’s most significant achievements, however, was being the first woman — not just black woman — to serve in the New York Senate and be appointed Borough judge of Manhattan, New York. She also became the first black woman to be appointed to a federal judgeship, by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. 

Constance Baker Motley died Sept. 28, 2005, but is still significant to women’s history because she paved the way for not only black women to serve in government but also for women in general to do the same. She proved that not just women, but especially women of color, are just as capable of doing something the next man can.

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