Sankofa Studies

Constance Baker Motley

February 25, 2021

Constance Baker Motley was a key strategist of the civil rights movement, lawyer, judge, state senator and Borough President of Manhattan, NY City. 

Constance Baker Motley was born on September 14, 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut.  She was the ninth child in a family of 12 children.  Her parents were emigrants from the island of Nevis. Motley grew up attending New Haven’s  integrated public schools and soon became an avid reader.  She was inspired by books concerning civil rights heroes and by the age of 15 she had decided to become a lawyer.  Due to her family’s economic situation she could not afford to attend college immediately after graduating high school.  Instead she took up a job as a maid for a short time before finding a job with the National Youth Administration.  Giving a speech at the local community center one night, a wealthy white contractor, Clarence Blakeslee, was so impressed that he offered to pay for her college.

Motley began her college career at Fisk University in 1941. In 1943 she transferred to New York University where she received her bachelor’s degree in economics.   In 1944 she became the first black woman to be accepted into Columbia Law School.  It was here where she met Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  Motley worked for the Legal Defense Fund while she obtaining her degree, which she received in 1946. 

After graduating from Columbia’s Law School in 1946, Sister Constance Baker Motley was hired by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) as a civil rights lawyer. As the fund’s first female attorney, she became associate counsel to the LDF, making her a lead trial attorney in a number of early and significant civil rights cases. She visited churches that were firebombed, sang freedom songs, visited Rev. Martin Luther King while he sat in jail, and spent a night with civil rights activist Medgar Evers under armed guard. In 1950 she wrote the original complaint in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. The first African-American woman ever to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Meredith v. Fair she won James Meredith’s effort to be the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962. Motley was successful in nine of the ten cases she argued before the Supreme Court. The tenth decision, regarding jury composition, was eventually overturned in her favor. She was otherwise a key legal strategist in the civil rights movement, helping to desegregate Southern schools, buses, and lunch counters.

Motley was elected on February 4, 1964, to the New York State Senate (21st district), to fill the vacancy caused by the election of James Lopez Watson to the New York City Civil Court. She was the first African-American woman to sit in the state senate. She took her seat in the 174th New York State Legislature, was re-elected in November 1964 to the 175th New York State Legislature, and resigned her seat when she was chosen on February 23, 1965, as Manhattan borough president—the first woman in that position. In November 1965, she was elected to succeed herself for a full four-year term.Motley was nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson on January 26, 1966, to the seat on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York vacated by Judge Archie Owen Dawson. She was confirmed by the United States Senate on August 30, 1966, and received her commission on August 30, 1966, becoming the first African-American female federal judge. She served as chief judge from 1982 to 1986. She assumed senior status on September 30, 1986. Motley’s service terminated on September 28, 2005, following her passing in New York City.



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