Constance Baker Motley
National Visionary

14 September 1921–28 September 2005
Born in New Haven, Connecticut

First African American woman appointed to the federal judiciary; Central figure in historic civil rights legal milestones

Constance Baker Motley led a distinguished career as both a civil rights attorney and a jurist on the federal bench. Representing the voice of both minorities and women during her decades as a practicing attorney, she had also addressed the rights of these same groups from her position on the U.S. District Court of New York State. An energetic, dedicated woman who had devoted her life to the practice of law, she had transcended many stereotypes leveled against members of her sex, earning a reputation as a somewhat uncompromising jurist with little patience for lawyers who overstep their bounds. Upon receiving the Distinguished Alumna Award from Columbia Law School's Women's Association, Motley was cited as "a symbol of success ... at a time when there was enormous discrimination against woman, and even more against black women."

Constance Baker was born on September 14, 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut, the daughter of immigrants from the island of Nevis. In Connecticut, Baker joined the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when she was denied admission to a local skating rink and public beach.

Baker enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, then transferred to New York University where, in 1943, she graduated with a degree in economics. Three years later she earned a law degree from Columbia University and married Joel Wilson Motley, a real estate and insurance broker.

Motley as a young woman

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
By 1946, Constance Baker Motley had already secured a position in the office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York. There, over a 20-year period, Baker served as staff member and associate and won 9 of the ten civil rights cases she argued, as she became one of the first women to argue cases before the Supreme Court.

Her exemplary courtroom skills influenced some of the key cases that preceded the civil rights movement of the 1960s, including Brown v Board of Education (1954), a victory for school-desegregation. Her expertise as chief council also led to a favorable decision is 1962 in the case for James H. Meredith against the University of Mississippi, securing Meredith's right to be admitted to the school.

Motley's list of achievements displays impressive firsts. From 1964 to 1965, she served a full term in the New York State Senate as the first African American female senator. In 1965, she became the first African American woman elected to the office of Manhattan borough president, and in 1966, she became the first African American woman appointed to the federal bench (New York). She was appointed senior judge, in 1986, for the Southern District of New York--the largest federal trial court in the United States.

In 1993, Motley was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame--a fitting tribute to a woman who, through her contributions to the legal profession and the struggle for civil rights, has indeed helped make possible what once may have seemed otherwise.

Motley died of congestive heart failure on September 28, 2005.


Constance Baker Motley's Wikipedia Page


James Meredith's Visionary Page

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/motleyconstancebaker