Civil Rights Attorney, Lawmaker, Judge
Constance Baker Motley was born on September 14, 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut, the ninth of 12 children born to parents who had emigrated from the island of Nevis in the West Indies. Her pioneering career as a civil rights lawyer, lawmaker and judge spanned six decades and was highlighted by numerous historic achievements, including becoming the first African American woman accepted at Columbia Law School, the first African American woman elected to the New York Senate, the first woman and the first black woman to hold the position of Manhattan Borough President, and the first African American woman appointed to serve as a federal district judge.
Judge Motley attended New Haven’s integrated public schools and became an avid reader at an early age. Inspired by her reading about civil rights heroes, she decided that she wanted to be a lawyer at age 15 and was determined to do so despite the financial, racial, and gender barriers confronting her. After graduating from high school with honors, she worked as a maid for a short time and then took a job with the National Youth Administration. One evening she gave a speech at the local Community House in which she urged that black members be given more control over the facility. A wealthy white philanthropist, Clarence Blakeslee, the grandson of abolitionists, was so impressed with her presentation that he offered to pay for her education. With Blakeslee’s financial support, Judge Motley attended Fisk University, and then transferred to New York University where she received a bachelor’s degree in economics. She was accepted at Columbia University Law School in 1944 and graduated in 1946.
In 1948, she began a 16-year as a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, serving as a key attorney in many of the major legal challenges of the civil rights era, including dozens of school desegregation challenges. She was the only woman on the legal team in the historic legal challenge to school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. She was lead counsel for James Meredith in his successful battle to gain admission to University of Mississippi. She argued ten cases to the United States Supreme Court, winning nine of them.
In 1964, Judge Motley was elected to the New York State Senate and subsequently served as Manhattan’s Borough President. In January 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to United States District Court for the Southern District of New York court. In 1982, she became the first female chief judge of that court. Her many rulings included a case that allowed female reporters to enter locker rooms at Yankee stadium and another that upheld the right of gay protestors to march in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Judge Motley died of congestive heart failure on September 28, 2005 at age 84. Although she had assumed senior status as a judge in 1986, handling a reduced caseload, she continued her work until her death. She was survived by her husband, Joel Wilson Motley whom she married in 1949, one son Joel Motley, 3d, and several siblings.