Motley, Constance Baker


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Motley, Constance Baker

Constance Baker Motley played an integral role in defending legislation that was created to protect the rights of all Americans. Her work on landmark civil rights cases in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s helped to abolish Segregation in schools and changed the way in which the U.S. Constitution is interpreted. Motley was the first African-American woman to be elected to the New York State Senate; the first African-American and the first woman to be elected as Manhattan borough president; and the first female African American federal judge.

Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on September 14, 1921, one of nine children. The America in which Motley grew up was segregated. As a child going to a beach in Milford, Connecticut, Motley was turned away because of the color of her skin. When she returned home, she asked her parents, both West Indian immigrants, why the color of her skin meant that she could not go swimming. Her parents were unfamiliar with U.S. segregation and had no answer.

As a teenager, Motley became fascinated with U.S. history, particularly the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation. She sought out role models in her community to help her focus her interests and began attending meetings at a local adult community center. At that center, she came in contact with George W. Crawford, a prominent black lawyer in New Haven, who told her about the case of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337, 59 S. Ct. 232, 83 L. Ed. 208 (1938).

At the time of Gaines, Missouri was like many southern states that maintained all-white professional schools, sending qualified minority law school applicants to schools in other states. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gaines that Missouri's admissions practice did not offer an equal educational opportunity to minority students and that it therefore violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That verdict meant that many states had to re-evaluate their school systems and either create new schools specifically for black students or desegregate existing white graduate schools. Crawford told Motley that he believed that the Gaines case would prompt states to create separate schools to avoid desegregation.

The Gaines case inspired Motley to attend law school. She wanted to be a lawyer in order to fight for Civil Rights, as Abraham Lincoln had done. However, when she approached her father about following her dream, he told her that college was a financial impossibility on his wages as a chef at a Yale fraternity house.

After graduating from high school as an honor student in 1939, Baker spent 18 months working for the National Youth Administration in New Haven. Disturbed by blacks' lack of interest in the community center, she decided to address her peers at a meeting at the center. As president of the New Haven Youth Council, Motley spoke about the apparent apathy of blacks toward the center, which she suggested stemmed from the lack of black involvement in setting policy and designing projects for the center. Clarence Blakeslee, the successful, white businessman who had been the primary donor for the community center, heard Motley speak and was very impressed. He offered to pay for Motley's education.

Accepting the offer, Motley attended New York University, where she received a bachelor of arts degree in economics. She then went to Columbia University School of Law, where she received her law degree in 1946. While still at Columbia, Motley got a job with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, clerking for chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, who would later sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Motley joined the NAACP during World War II and worked on many cases involving black servicemen. These soldiers told of segregation in the armed forces and protested that punishments given to black soldiers were outrageous compared with those given to white soldiers for similar infractions. Motley worked on hundreds of Court-Martial cases that earned the NAACP much notoriety. Her work with the NAACP enabled her to try cases in federal courts and even to try ten cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Motley often was the first African-American attorney, and usually the first female African-American attorney, to be seen in many of those courtrooms.

In the late 1940s, the NAACP decided to focus on eliminating segregation in education. Motley's first case after she had completed law school took the Gaines case a step further. It involved Herman Marion Sweatt (Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629, 70 S. Ct. 848, 94 L. Ed. 1114 [1949]) who was denied admission to the law school at the University of Texas solely because he was black. Under pressure from the NAACP, the school set up a makeshift classroom for Sweatt in the basement of a building, obtained books for him, and assigned him four professors from the faculty. However, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the state had violated the Equal Protection Clause because Sweatt's inability to interact with fellow classmates made his education inferior. Motley tried other cases involving segregation in professional schools and was a driving force in reforming their admission practices, thus paving the way for minority professionals in this country.

In 1954, Motley helped to write legal briefs for the landmark case brown v. board of education of topeka, kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954). In Brown, the Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The case was a major victory for civil rights advocates and fueled Motley's hope for real change in U.S. attitudes toward minority groups.

"The struggle for racial equality is like a prairie fire. You may succeed in stamping out the struggle for equality in one corner and, lo and behold, it appears soon thereafter somewhere else."
—Constance Baker Motley

In the 1960s, Motley turned her attention toward minority children. She was concerned about the inadequate schooling for black children, the slum conditions in which many were forced to live, and the high rates of unemployment in black communities. She wanted new legislation to address these problems. In 1964, Motley became the first African-American woman to be elected to the New York State Senate. In 1965, she relinquished her Senate seat when she was elected president of the borough of Manhattan. From that post, she worked to revitalize Harlem and to advance urban renewal.

In 1966, when President lyndon b. johnson appointed Motley to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, protest from southerners held up her appointment from January to August. Later, when President Johnson nominated Motley to the U.S. Court of Appeals, male opposition pressured him into withdrawing her name.

Since she became a federal judge, Motley has ruled on more than 2,500 cases. In 1982, Motley became chief judge of the court. She assumed senior status in 1986.

In 1993, Motley was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, and in 1998 she published Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography. In the new millennium, Motley continued to hear cases as a senior U.S. district court judge. She has been the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Equal Justice Award. In 2001, President bill clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal.

Further readings

Berry, Dawn Bradley. 1996. The 50 Most Influential Women in American Law. Los Angeles: Contemporary Books.

Gilbert, Lynn, and Gaylen Moore. 1981. Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Have Shaped Our Times. New York: Potter.

Orfield, Gary, Susan E. Eaton, and Elaine R. Jones. 1997. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.

Plowden, Martha Ward. 1993. Famous Firsts of Black Women. Gretna, La.: Pelican.

Stoddard, Hope. 1970. Famous American Women. New York: Cromwell.

Cross-references

Civil Rights Movement; Integration; School Desegregation.