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“Defeat Never Entered My Mind”

Hon. Constance Baker Motley

Hon. Constance Baker Motley

The last week of September in U.S. political history, most likely will be remembered for the debate between Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden, former Vice President of the U.S., and President Donald Trump at the 2020 First Presidential Debates in Cleveland, Ohio.
For knowledgeable Americans, the week marked the 15th anniversary of the death of Hon. Constance Baker Motley whose work set precedents that helped shape civil rights, women’s rights and human rights. This issue is dedicated to her memory and her example of remarkable grace and impeccable leadership under great pressure … so missed in these harrowing times. (BG)

Hon. Constance Baker Motley
Constance Baker Motley was a woman of many firsts: New York’s first Black state senator in 1964; Manhattan’s first Black and woman president in 1965; and President Lyndon Johnson’s appointee in 1966 as a judge in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York — the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge and argue a case before the Supreme Court.


Motley began her college career at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee 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, in her sophomore year, 1945, where she met Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel and founder of the the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), who later became the first Black Supreme Court justice. Marshall hired student Motley as his law clerk. She obtained her Bachelor of Law from Columbia while working with him. She was assigned to court-martial cased filed after World War II.


She became known as a chief legal strategist for the Civil Rights Movement on several major cases, arguing 10 (and winning nine of them) before the nation’s highest court. Working with Marshall, she prepared the draft complaint in 1950 for what would later become the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case.


As the first African American woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, Motley won with the LDF team, the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education which toppled public school segregation in America.


In 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.)


Also during this period, her work resulted in the reinstatement of 1,000 school children in Birmingham, Ala., after the local school board expelled them for demonstrating. She represented “Freedom Riders” who rode buses to test the Supreme Court’s 1960 ruling prohibiting segregation in interstate transportation.
She won victories for Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes, who were admitted to the University of Georgia at Albany in 1961 in a landmark victory; James Meredith in his desegregation case against the University of Mississippi; Harvey Gantt at Clemson University in South Carolina; Vivian Malone Jones, in the 1963, for entry in the University of Alabama case despite opposition from the state’s governor, George Wallace.


A decision, which would have allowed blacks to sit on juries, was eventually overturned in her favor.


She also personally represented The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., defending his right to march in Birmingham and Albany, Ga. In this capacity, she visited the Civil Rights leader in jail and at various sites that had been bombed by segregationists. On one occasion she even spent a night in jail with Medgar Evers who was under armed guard, a year before his assassination.


In her 1998 autobiography, “Equal Justice Under Law,” Motley said defeat never entered her mind. “We all believed that our time had come and that we had to go forward.”


“Mrs. Motley’s style could be deceptive, often allowing a witness to get away with one lie after another without challenging him,” journalist Hunter-Gault, wrote in her 1992 book, “In My Place.” But she then she would “suddenly {throw} a curve ball with so much skill and power that she would knock them off their chair.”
In 1965, she became the first woman President of the Borough of Manhattan, where she worked to promote integration in public schools.


The following year, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated her to the federal bench in U.S. Southern District of New York. She was confirmed nine months later, though her appointment was opposed by conservative federal judges and Southern politicians. She was the nation’s first Black female federal judge.
Over the next four decades, Motley handled a number of civil rights cases, including her breakthrough decision in 1978 that allowed female reporters to be admitted to the locker rooms of Major League Baseball teams.


In 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2001, President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal. In 2003, she was honored with the Spingarn Award from the NAACP.


Journalist Herb Boyd wrote in his September 3, 2020, New York Amsterdam News story, “Her legal acumen was instrumental in the fight to desegregate southern schools, buses and lunch counters” and she also was a force in New York City community empowerment movements, he noted. Motley “devoted considerable time and advocacy to housing equality, especially for Black, Latino and low-income tenants. She was a pacesetter in the quest to improve the impoverished neighborhoods of the city.”


Judge Motley was born on September 14, 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut. She was the ninth child in a family of 12 children. Her mother, Rachel Baker, was a founder of the New Haven chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her father, Willoughby Alva Baker, worked as a chef for student organizations at Yale University. 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, teenager Constance Baker so impressed a wealthy contractor/philanthropist that he offered to pay for her college. She chose Fisk University in Nashville, TN, and soon after transferred to NYU, where she earned her undergraduate degree in 1946. That same year she married Joel Motley, a lawyer and real estate broker, and joined LDF as a full-time staff member under Thurgood Marshall.


She died of congestive heart failure at Sept. 28 2005, in New York. Her services were held at Riverside Church.

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