- Black woman accepted at Columbia Law School in 1943
- Black woman to serve in the New York State Senate in 1964
- Woman to serve as Manhattan Borough President in 1965
- Black woman appointed as a Federal District Judge in 1966 (1, 2)
- Black woman to serve as Chief Judge in 1982 (3)
Simply being the first so many times would be enough of an achievement to warrant our commendation, but Baker Motley also participated in many of the most prominent civil rights events of the era. While working with Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, she wrote the original complaint used to argue against the “separate but equal” doctrine in what would become the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954). She was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s chief legal advisors, defending his right to march against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. She worked with the Little Rock Nine (the nine black students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas)(4), spent a night under armed guard with assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers(2) and successfully argued nine of 10 cases before the Supreme Court. The tenth, she noted, was later decided in her favor(5). She led the legal campaign that won James Meredith admission to the University of Mississippi as the first black student at Ole Miss and said the day he accepted his diploma was the most thrilling in her life(2).
In addition to her civil rights work, she ruled female sports reporters could not be denied admission to the New York Yankees locker room to conduct post-game interviews, that gay protestors could march in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral(5) and that a prisoner held in solitary confinement for 372 days had been unconstitutionally punished.
Dignity for all people was her goal, and as she told The New York Times in 1977, her work would affect people’s lives intimately; it might even change people’s lives(2). Her work as a lawyer, advocate and judge changed lives, not only for her clients, plaintiffs and defendants, but for all Americans who have benefitted from her wisdom and conviction. She has truly moved history forward.
1: “Constance Baker Motley.” National Women’s History Project.
2: Martin, Douglas. “Constance Baker Motley, Civil Rights Trailblazer, Dies at 84.” The New York Times. 29 September 2005.
3: “Constance Baker Motley.” C250 Celebrates Columbians Ahead of Their Time.
4: Hodgson, Godfrey. “Obituary: Constance Baker Motley.” The Guardian. 1 October 2005.
5: Derick, Rachel Christmas. “A Columbian Ahead of Her Time: Constance Baker Motley.” Columbia Magazine.
Photo from Women in the Judiciary
To learn more:
Motley, Constance Baker. Equal Justice Under the Law: An Autobiography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. New York: Vintage, 2004.