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You may not know her name, but you have been affected by the legal battles she won and the precedents she set that helped shape civil rights, women’s rights and human rights. A brilliant lawyer and distinguished federal judge for over forty years, Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005) quietly helped change the course of American history. She is one of many unsung civil rights heroines who waded into the Big Muddy of American racism, but whose name today remains relatively unknown.
In 1950, Constance Baker Motley wrote the first brief in the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, that declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. In 1962, she successfully argued before the Supreme Court for the admission of James Meredith, a black man, to the all-white University of Mississippi. As a Federal Judge in 1978, her breakthrough decision for women in sports broadcasting allowed female reporters into the locker rooms of Major League Baseball.
As an African-American woman, her achievements set new standards for what was possible for all women: she was the first black woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, the first black woman to be elected to the New York State Senate, the first to be elected President of the Borough Council of Manhattan, and the first black woman ever appointed to the Federal bench (to the southern district of New York in 1964 by Lyndon Johnson). But it was her courageous legal work for victims of discrimination and oppression in the Deep South that made her a pivotal figure in American history.
From humble origins in New Haven, CT, she was born Constance Baker in 1921, the ninth of twelve children, to immigrant parents from the West Indian island of Nevis. Her father was a chef at Yale, her mother a domestic worker. Too poor to attend college, young Baker’s organizing and speaking on behalf of her neighborhood community center prompted local philanthropist, Clarence Blakeslee, to offer her funds in 1939 to attend the college of her choice. She chose Fisk University in Nashville, TN, but once there experienced southern-style segregation, and quickly transferred to NYU, where she earned her undergraduate degree in 1943. She enrolled next at Columbia Law School and graduated in 1946, the same year she married her husband, Joel Motley, a lawyer and real estate broker, and joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) as a full-time staff member under its leader, Thurgood Marshall.
Under Marshall, she was involved in every important civil rights case of the era, quickly rising to prominence at the center of America’s civil rights firestorms in the 1950s and ‘60s. Her work as a brilliant lawyer and key strategist with the NAACP ‘s LDF (1946-66) brought her into close association with Dr. Martin Luther King, where she played critical roles that helped desegregate southern schools, buses, and lunch counters.
“She was a dogged opponent of Southern segregationists, who found her tougher than Grant at Vicksburg,” said Jack Greenberg, leader of the LDF after Thurgood Marshall was appointed federal judge. “She dug in to a position and wouldn’t let go in the face of threats, evasion, obfuscation, and delay.” For the two tumultuous decades King led nonviolent protests in the streets, Motley fought fiercely, steadily and courageously for civil rights in the courts. The two went hand in glove.
“Integrity was her middle name,” says Barbara Delaney, a friend of Motley’s for over forty years in Chester, CT. The Motley’s had purchased a home in this small, rural community on the Connecticut River in 1965, the year Motley stepped into her role as Manhattan Borough President. “They wanted a place to get away from New York for weekends, for peace and quiet in the country,“ Delaney explained. “Most residents of the town—even today—had no idea who had come to live in their midst.” As the first African-American woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, Motley won nine of her ten cases, including the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education, and her equally famous 1962 James Meredith desegregation case at the University of Mississippi. The tenth decision, which would have allowed blacks to sit on juries, was eventually overturned in her favor. There were also the legal cases she argued in lower courts for integration at the University of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
While Motley’s name is not a household word, we do know the names—and can remember many of the cases—that illuminated national personalities and stories. Besides James Meredith, there was Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who Motley got admitted as the first black to the University of Georgia at Albany in 1961. Hunter-Gault went on to become a star on PBS’ MacNeil-Lehrer Report, a chief correspondent for National Public Radio, as well as a writer for the New York Times. Harvey Gantt followed in 1963 at Clemson University in South Carolina. He went on to found his own architectural firm, then became mayor of Charlotte, SC and is today the subject of PBS‘—The Education of Harvey Gantt.
Motley won a difficult court victory for Vivian Malone Jones in the second University of Alabama case in 1963, despite opposition from the state’s pugnacious governor, George Wallace. He had made school desegregation his cause, stating in his inaugural address on the steps of the state capitol in Jan. 1963, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!” But Motley succeeded in getting Malone admitted, and she went on to work in the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department. Wallace later recanted his racist positions.
In perhaps the most notorious case, known as the “Little Rock Nine,” Attorney Motley successfully won enrollment for nine black high school students at racially segregated Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. With court order in-hand, the nine students were physically blocked from the school by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, using his state’s National Guard. This precipitated the “Little Rock Crisis” in which President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to the city to quell the white opposition, and escort the students into class. He also federalized the entire 10,000-man Arkansas National Guard, effectively taking their deployment out of the hands of Gov. Faubus and defusing the situation, and setting an important precedent.
Working seriatim and side by side with Dr. King, Motley’s persistent legal advocacy brought rulings that not only ended segregation in southern schools, but also desegregated countless restaurants and whites-only lunch counters in Tennessee and Alabama. She petitioned for King’s right to march in Georgia, and visited him in jail—as his lawyer. She sang freedom songs in fire-bombed black churches, and spent time in Mississippi under armed guard helping to protect Medgar Evers, the famed civil rights leader, later murdered in 1963 by a white supremacist.
Motley constantly imperiled her own life by being in the courts of the Deep South at a time and place where racial tensions burned white-hot. And even as she became a lightning rod for the massive white resistance to school desegregation and the target of taunting mobs, demonstrations and verbal abuse, she retained her dignity, a calm demeanor, and her classic string of pearls befitting a well-dressed, successful litigator.
“She had a quiet confidence,” remembers Delaney, Motley’s Chester, CT friend, now 91. “There was such dignity about Constance.” She was also likeable and outgoing, and according to Delaney “had a graciousness about her that was charming. She also had this enormous presence and a voice that made you listen!”
In her 1998 autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law, Motley cautioned that racism has not been eradicated and will “follow us and bewilder us” into the next century. Harvard Law Professor Derrick Bell, who was co-counsel on the Meredith case with her, wrote that her memoir “reminds us how one courageous and persistent individual can make a difference.”
Motley remained on the federal bench in New York, including a term as Chief Justice (another first), until her death in 2005, age 84. In 2012, the inspiring, award-winning documentary film, Justice is a Black Woman, chronicling Motley’s life and work, was produced by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT, and was aired on PBS. (Available for purchase from its producers, contact: Susan.Scoopo[at]quinnipiac[dot]edu)
The outsized importance—but relative obscurity—of Judge Motley’s name in the civil rights canon parallels that of many other black women whose names are still unknown to us today, yet whose organizing and leadership efforts were essential to the human rights progress achieved during the civil rights era.
Just as the legal battles Motley fought in the courts were necessary to the success of King’s crusades in the streets, so too were the efforts of local (mostly female) black organizers who, at great personal cost to their lives, preceded and paved the way for King’s appearances in every area of the South.
To mention just a few names who are on the invisible black heroines list from every southern state, we should remember the work of: Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, Daisy Bates, Dorothy Cotton, Marie Foster, Prathia Hall, Amelia Boynton, Claudette Colvin, Colia Lafayette, Septima Clark, McCree Harris, Shirley Sherrod, Diane Nash, Johnnie Carr, Thelma Glass, Georgia Gilmore, Rosa Williams, JoAnn Robinson, Vera Piggy, and all the wives of the many visible black male leaders.
The questions of why and how the interwoven systems of race, gender and class obscured the leadership value and recognition that Judge Motley and other black women deserve, are yet to be fully answered. In the meantime, we should learn more about these remarkable women and what they did in the civil rights movement. Judge Motley is a very good start.
This article first appeared in Common Dreams and is licensed for publication in Vox Populi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Marta Daniels is a writer, public historian and long-time peace and justice activist. She participated in civil rights marches and voter registration drives in the Sixties, and helped organize the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign conceived by Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She is at work on a sequel to this essay about the contributions of the many invisible heroines of the civil rights movement.
Judge Constance Baker Motley in her chambers, circa 1990.