Constance Baker Motley
September 14, 1921 – September 28, 2005
Notable: Lawyer & Judge
Constance Juanita Baker was born in New Haven, Connecticut the ninth of her parents’ twelve children. Baker’s parents were working-class immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis who encouraged their children to do and be their personal best and to also be actively involved in their community. As a child living in the Northeast, Baker attended school and lived in a racially integrated community.
She did not personally experience racism or sexism in her youth but learned about the Civil Rights Movement in Sunday school. By high school, she had become a member of civil rights and community organizations and was serving as president of the New Haven NAACP Youth Council as well as the secretary of the New Haven Adult Community Council.
In addition to her parents’ teachings, Baker was inspired by a declaration she’d read by Abraham Lincoln. Within the declaration, Lincoln had stated that the law was a challenging profession that required ambition. Those words spoke to something within Baker and sparked her dream to become a lawyer. Yet, as a child from humble beginnings and a Black female, the people around her (including her parents) saw her dream as being unrealistic. But, refusing to be discouraged, Baker looked to early Black female attorneys as examples that her dreams could become a reality.
To become an attorney, Baker needed to attend college and law school but her parents were not in the financial position to pay her tuition. And it was at that moment that giving to her community gave back to her. After graduation, Baker gave a speech at a community center at which Clarence Blakeslee was in attendance. Blakeslee was a local White philanthropist who was so impressed by Baker that when she shared her dream of becoming an attorney he offered to pay for her to attend college.
Baker applied to and was accepted at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee and it was during her trip to begin college that she had her first brush with segregation. As the train moved through the North, Baker was allowed to ride in any car but when it reached Cincinnati, Ohio she had to move to the old and dilapidated segregated “Colored” car. She had learned about segregation as a child but experiencing it was something else.
After a few semesters at Fisk, Baker moved back to the North and completed a B.A. in Economics at New York University. She later enrolled at Columbia Law School, in the process becoming the first Black female to attend the school. Following graduation, she went to work at the NAACP as Thurgood Marshall’s law clerk at the Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). It was also around this time that she married Joel Wilson Motley, Jr. and became Constance Baker Motley.
The 20 years that Baker Motley spent at the LDF covered 1945 to 1964, a period during which the organization took several pivotal civil rights cases to court. While Marshall was arguably the most prominent LDF attorney, Baker Motley also contributed to several important cases. Ten years into her tenure at the LDF she authored the legal brief for Brown v. The Board of Education. In the years that followed she represented sit-in protestors, the Little Rock Nine, the Freedom Riders, James Meredith, and Martin Luther King, Jr. on several occasions. She would argue ten cases before the Supreme Court with a 90% success rate, not counting the other 50+ cases in which she assisted.
Baker Motley and her husband maintained their ties to Connecticut and the LDF was based in New York City. But, in the early phases before reaching the Supreme Court, civil rights cases would be argued locally in Southern towns and states. This meant that Baker Motley would have to face down danger and potential threats to travel through and stay in the South while arguing cases in court.
In 1964, Baker Motley was elected to the New York State Senate and a year later was elected Manhattan borough president. These political wins made her the first Black woman elected to the State Senate and first female Manhattan borough president of color. She used her position in the State Senate to advocate for civil rights laws and housing. Her election as borough president was initially to fill a one-year vacancy but she was later elected to a full term having won endorsements from all the major parties.
Her career streak of firsts continued into 1966 when she became the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge following her appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This was despite a political brawl in which Southern senators contested her nomination to prevent her appointment. Once on the judicial bench, she did not suddenly become a pawn for the wealthy and powerful but instead ruled fairly, often siding with those who are traditionally railroaded by the justice system. The 1980s would see her move up in rank to Chief Judge of the court and later Senior Judge.
In 1998, Baker Motley published an autobiography titled Equal Justice Under Law. During her life, she received multiple honorary doctorates and was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bill Clinton as well as the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal. Constance Baker Motley died of congestive heart failure on September 28, 2005.
- “Constance Baker Motley.” n.d. Columbia Celebrates Black History and Culture. Columbia University. Accessed March 10, 2021. https://blackhistory.news.columbia.edu/people/constance-baker-motley.
- “Constance Baker Motley.” n.d. CT Women’s Hall of Fame. Accessed March 10, 2021. https://www.cwhf.org/inductees/constance-baker-motley.
- “Constance Baker Motley: Judiciary’s Unsung Rights Hero.” 2020. United States Courts. Federal Judiciary. February 20, 2020. https://www.uscourts.gov/news/2020/02/20/constance-baker-motley-judiciarys-unsung-rights-hero.
- Piascik, Andy. 2021. “Constance Baker Motley: A Warrior for Justice.” Connecticut History. CTHumanities. February 17, 2021. https://connecticuthistory.org/constance-baker-motley-a-warrior-for-justice/.
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