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Constance Baker Motley

(1921-2005)

Brown@50
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Robert L. Carter
Julian R. Dugas
Jack Greenberg
William H. Hastie
George E. C. Hayes
A. Leon Higginbotham
Oliver W. Hill
Charles Hamilton Houston
Thurgood Marshall
William Robert Ming, Jr.
Constance Baker Motley
James M. Nabrit, Jr.
Spottswood W. Robinson, III

 

Biography

Constance Baker was born on September 14, 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut. She attended Fisk University but in 1942 transferred to NYU's Washington Square College where she earned a bachelors degree in economics.  She attended Columbia Law School, graduating in 1946. She married Joel Wilson Motley in 1949.

Following graduation from Columbia Law School, Constance Baker began her legal career working for the chief counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Thurgood Marshall, in the New York office. She eventually became the LDF's Associate Counsel (LDF's principal trial attorney).  

From her position with the NAACP LDF, Motley participated in most of the important Civil Rights cases from 1945 to 1965. In 1950, she prepared the draft complaint for what would become Brown v. Board of Education. She was the only woman on the NAACP legal team for Brown.

Later, in the case of Meredith v. Fair, 298 F.2d 696 (5th Cir. 1962), she was lead counsel for James Meredith in forcing integration of the University of Mississippi. From 1961 to 1964, she amassed the amazing winning record by prevailing in 9 of the 10 civil rights cases she argued before the Supreme Court.

Motley pursued a short political career, becoming in 1964, the first African-American woman elected to the New York State Senate.

In 1966 she became the first African-American woman to be a federal judge when President Johnson appointed her to the federal district court for the Southern District Court of New York. There she handled many important cases, including in particular one in 1978 requiring the NY Yankees to admit a female reporter to the Yankees' locker room. She was appointed chief judge of the SDNY in 1982, and in 1986 took the status of senior judge.

She wrote her autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law: The Life of a Pioneer for Black Civil Rights and Women's Rights (1988).

Selected Bibliography

Constance Baker Motley, Equal Justice Under Law: The Life of a Pioneer for Black Civil Rights and Women's Rights (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1988)

J. Clay Smith, Jr., Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944 (U. Pa. Press 1993)

Paul Finkelman, Not Only the Judges' Robes Were Black: African-American Lawyers as Social Engineers, 47 Stan. L. Rev. 161 (1994)