Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley
Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
In office
May 31, 1982  September 30, 1986
Preceded by Lloyd MacMahon
Succeeded by Charles Brieant
Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
In office
August 30, 1966  September 30, 1986
Appointed by Lyndon Johnson
Preceded by Archie Dawson
Succeeded by Kimba Wood
Borough President of Manhattan
In office
February 23, 1965  August 30, 1966
Preceded by Edward Dudley
Succeeded by Percy Sutton
Member of the New York Senate
from the 21st district
In office
February 4, 1964  February 23, 1965
Preceded by James Watson
Succeeded by Jeremiah Bloom
Personal details
Born (1921-09-21)September 21, 1921
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
Died September 28, 2005(2005-09-28) (aged 84)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Alma mater Fisk University
New York University
Columbia University

Constance Baker Motley (September 14, 1921 – September 28, 2005) was an African-American civil rights activist, lawyer, judge, state senator, and Borough President of Manhattan, New York City. She was the first African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary by Lyndon B. Johnson. She was an assistant attorney to Thurgood Marshall arguing the case Brown v. Board of Education.[1][2]

Early life and education

Constance Baker was born on September 14, 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut, the ninth of twelve children. Her parents, Rachel Huggins and McCullough Alva Baker,[3] were immigrants from Nevis, in the Caribbean. Her mother was a domestic worker, and her father worked as a chef for different Yale University student societies, including the secret society Skull and Bones.[4]

While growing up in New Haven, Baker attended the integrated public schools, but was occasionally subject to racism.[3] In two separate incidents she was denied entrance, once to a skating rink, the other to a local beach.[3] By the time Baker reached high school she had already cultivated a profound sense of racial awareness, sparking her interest to get involved with civil rights. A speech by Yale Law School graduate George Crawford, a civil rights attorney for the New Haven Branch of the NAACP, inspired Baker to attend law school.[3]

With financial help from a local philanthropist, Clarence W. Blakeslee, she started college at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, but later returned north to attend integrated New York University. At NYU, she obtained her Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1943. Motley received her law degree in 1946 from Columbia University School of Law.[3]

In October 1945, during Baker's second year at Columbia's Law School, future U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall hired her as a law clerk. She was assigned to work on court martial cases that were filed after World War II.[3]

Civil rights work

After graduating from Columbia's Law School in 1946, Baker 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. Baker visited churches that were fire bombed, sang freedom songs, and visited Rev. Martin Luther King while he sat in jail, as well as spending a night with civil rights activist Medgar Evers under armed guard.[4]

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.

Political and judicial firsts

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.[5] 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.[6] In November 1965, she was elected to succeed herself for a full four-year term.

In September 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, making her the first African American woman federal judge.[7] She remained on the bench, including a term as chief judge, until her death.

Motley handed down a breakthrough decision for women in sports broadcasting in 1978, when she ruled that a female reporter must be allowed into a Major League Baseball locker room.[8]


She received a Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1984.[9] In 1993, she was inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame. In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal. The NAACP awarded her the Spingarn Medal, the organization's highest honor, in 2003. Motley was a prominent honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

Personal life

Constance Baker married Joel Motley, Jr., a real-estate and insurance broker, in 1946 at Saint Luke's Episcopal Church in New Haven, Connecticut. They were married until her death of congestive heart failure on September 28, 2005 at NYU Downtown Hospital in New York City.[10] Her funeral was held at the Connecticut church where she had been married; a public memorial service was held at Riverside Church in Manhattan. She left one son, Joel Wilson Motley III, co-chairman of Human Rights Watch, and three grandchildren, Hannah Motley, Ian Motley, and Senai Motley.[11]


An award-winning biographical documentary, Justice is a Black Woman: The Life and Work of Constance Baker Motley, was first broadcast on Connecticut Public Television in 2012. A documentary short, The Trials of Constance Baker Motley, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19, 2015.[12]


  1. "Title IX: 40 Years and Counting: Melissa Ludtke speaks about Ludtke/Time Inc. vs. Kuhn and MLB" (Video). Wellesley Athletics. Wellesley College. 15 February 2012.
  2. Greene, Melissa Fay (25 December 2005). "Pride and Prejudice: Constance Baker Motley b. 1921". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 October 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Hines, C.D., Hines, C.W. & Harrow, S. (2011). The African American Odyssey. New Jersey: Pearson
  4. 1 2 Martin, Douglas (29 September 2005). "Constance Baker Motley, 84, Civil Rights Trailblazer, Lawmaker and Judge, Dies". The New York Times. p. 10.
  5. MRS. MOTLEY WINS SENATE ELECTION in the New York Times on February 5, 1964 (subscription required)
  6. MRS. MOTLEY WINS MANHATTAN POST in the New York Times on February 24, 1965 (subscription required)
  7. Mrs. Motley Inducted as Federal Judge in the New York Times on September 10, 1966 (subscription required)
  8. "Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)". Brown@50 – Fulfilling the Promise. Howard University School of Law.
  9. "CANDACE AWARD RECIPIENTS 1982-1990, Page 3". National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Archived from the original on March 14, 2003.
  10. Holley, Joe (2005-09-29). "Constance Motley Dies; Rights Lawyer, Judge". Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-03-14.
  11. Constance (Baker) Motley, New York Times, September 30, 2005.
  12. Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Guide.

Further reading

New York State Senate
Preceded by
James Lopez Watson
Member of the New York Senate
from the 21st district

Succeeded by
Jeremiah B. Bloom
Political offices
Preceded by
Edward R. Dudley
Borough President of Manhattan
Succeeded by
Percy Sutton
Legal offices
Preceded by
Archie Owen Dawson
Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
Succeeded by
Kimba Maureen Wood
Preceded by
Lloyd Francis MacMahon
Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
Succeeded by
Charles LaMonte Brieant, Jr.
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