12 minute read

Constance Baker Motley Biography

Experienced Racism, Philanthropist Paid for College, Set Her Sights on a Law Career


Federal court judge, lawyer, politician

When, in May of 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, the real struggle for school desegregation was just beginning. Over the next ten years, dozens of legal battles were required to enforce the ruling, and one of the leading powers behind them was a young, black trial attorney named Constance Baker Motley. Motley began working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1945, while still a law student at Columbia. Within a short time, she had risen from clerk to associate counsel and earned a reputation as a keen and meticulous lawyer. The first African American woman to represent the NAACP in court, Motley participated in nearly every important civil rights case brought to trial between 1945 and 1965, winning nine out of ten of them before the U.S. Supreme Court. Among her most famous victories was the case of James H. Meredith against the University of Mississippi, which ended in September of 1962, after 16 months of litigation. Motley was "a lioness who braved great danger to use the laws of this land to fight racial bigotry," according to USA Today writer DeWayne Wickham.

After leaving the NAACP in 1964, Motley was elected to the New York State Senate, becoming the first black woman in the state's history to hold such an office. The following year, she was selected by New York's city councilmen to fill the vacant post of Manhattan borough president, and was handily reelected nine months later in a citywide vote. The first woman—black or white—to serve as a borough president, she also became the first woman to sit on the New York Board of Estimate. Motley reached the pinnacle of her career in January of 1966, when President Lyndon B. Johnson named her U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York, a region that includes Manhattan, the Bronx, and six counties north of the city. The appointment made her the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge and the highest-paid black woman in government. Motley became chief judge in 1982, and four years later was appointed senior judge.

Experienced Racism

Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1921. The ninth of 12 children of West Indian parents who had migrated to the United States from the Caribbean island of Nevis, she grew up among a small, close-knit community of immigrants on the outskirts of the Yale University campus. Her father worked as a chef for the Skull & Bones, one of the university's elitist social clubs. At that time, New Haven's black population was very small, and Motley was one of only a few African American students in her elementary and high school classes. She excelled in her studies, however, and filled in the gaps in her knowledge of black history and culture through her attendance at an Episcopal church, where the minister delivered lectures on the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and other prominent African American scholars. It was not until she was 15 years old that she encountered her first real experiences with racism. One day, she and a group of friends were turned away from a public beach in nearby Milford, Connecticut, as the rules prohibited interracial swimming parties. On another occasion, she was denied admission to a roller-skating rink. These incidents stimulated her interest in civil rights and prompted her to become actively involved in community affairs. For a short time, she served as president of the local NAACP youth council and secretary of the New Haven Adult Community Council, both established to eliminate racial discrimination. She had originally hoped to become an interior decorator, but by the time she had finished high school in 1939, her aspirations had changed, and she set her sights on a career in law.

Philanthropist Paid for College

Despite Motley's strong academic ability and keen motivation, her parents could not afford to send her or her 11 brothers and sisters to college. For a few months following her graduation from high school, she struggled to earn a living as a domestic worker. She then accepted a job with the New Haven branch of the National Youth Administration. One night, she happened to deliver a speech at the Dixwell Community House, an African American social organization. The speech focused on the need for black members to be given greater control over the facility's operation. Without this, she contended, they would continue to shun its activities.

Among the members of the audience was Clarence Blakeslee, the wealthy white contractor and philanthropist who had built the center. Blakeslee was so impressed with the intelligence and poise of the tall, stately 18-year-old that he offered to pay for her college education. He could not understand why a student of her caliber was not in school. Motley remembered his generosity more than half a century later in a speech given during her induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame. "[Blakeslee] had made millions of dollars, and what he did with those millions was to help educate black Americans," the New Yorker quoted her as saying. "Clarence Blakeslee was a white man responsible for my being here today."

Eager to experience life in the South and observe firsthand the effects of segregation, Motley enrolled at Fisk University, a well-respected black institution in Nashville. On her first trip home, she brought her parents a poignant souvenir: a sign that read, "Colored Only." "It was my first experience in a black institution with black people who were just like white people, as we used to say," she recalled in an interview with the New Yorker. "Their parents were college educated, they had wealth. For the first time, I met blacks who were doing something other than cooking and waiting on tables."

Set Her Sights on a Law Career

Motley was surprised to learn, however, that most of her African American classmates intended to return to the black community, and had no interest whatsoever in advancing in the world of whites. Motley herself felt differently, and in June of 1942, after little more than a year at Fisk, she transferred to New York University. She graduated from NYU's Washington Square College with a bachelor's degree in economics and her mind set on becoming a lawyer.

At a Glance …

Born Constance Baker, September 14, 1921, in New Haven, CT; died on September 28, 2005, in New York, NY. daughter of Willoughby (a chef) and Rachel Baker; married Joel Wilson Motley, Jr., 1946; children: Joel Wilson III. Education: New York University, BA, 1943; Columbia University, LLB, 1946.

Career: Staff member and associate counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, New York, 1945–65; New York state senator, 1964–65; Manhattan Borough President, 1965–66; U.S. District Court judge, 1966–82; chief judge, 1982–86; senior judge, 1986–2005.

Memberships: NAACP; New York State Advisory Council on Employment and Unemployment Insurance, 1958–64; New York City Bar Association; National Bar Association.

Awards: Elizabeth Blackwell Award, Hobart & William Smith College, 1965; Columbia Law School Medal for Excellence, 1987; New York State Bar Association Gold Medal Award, 1988; Achievement Award, Associated Transit Guild of New York City; Good Government Award, New York State Careerists Society; National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, 1993. Received more than 20 honorary degrees from American colleges and universities, including Smith College, Tulane University, Princeton University, Brown University, Howard University, and Spelman College.

Motley began her studies at Columbia Law School in February of 1944. She was, at that time, one of the only African American women enrolled there. During her first year of law school, she met Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and later a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who offered her a job as a law clerk in the organization's New York office. After receiving her law degree in 1946, she became a full-fledged member of the legal staff. Her early work for the fund focused on discrimination against blacks in the area of housing. At that time, many of the clients who sought help from the organization had been denied the right to buy real estate in white neighborhoods. She sought to break the restrictive covenants that allowed this to happen.

Motley passed the New York State bar examination in 1948, and the following year was appointed assistant counsel at the Legal Defense Fund. She got her first courtroom experience that same year, when Marshall sent her, along with his chief assistant, Robert Carter, to Jackson, Mississippi, to handle an equalization-of-salary suit brought by an African American teacher against the Jackson public school system. The local newspapers ran a prominent story on the trial, and the courtroom was packed to the rafters. In the 1940s, Motley wrote in Ms., "women lawyers were a joke in most courthouses and unheard of in virtually every place except New York City…. The whole town turned out to see the 'Negro' lawyers from New York, 'one of whom [was] a woman.'"

Rose to Prominence as Attorney

Over the next 15 years, Motley served as a key attorney in dozens of school desegregation cases handled by the fund, appearing in dramatic courtroom trials in 11 southern states and the District of Columbia. After helping Marshall write the legal briefs for the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, she went on to argue ten of her own before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning nine of them. In 1956, she helped Autherine Lucy, the daughter of a black tenant farmer who had completed her undergraduate education at a segregated college, win the right to attend graduate school at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Six years later, Motley, then associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, won national recognition for representing James H. Meredith during his long but ultimately successful battle to gain admission to the University of Mississippi.

The case, which required nearly 15 court hearings and cost the fund an estimated $30,000, was considered a major victory for civil rights, and helped make Meredith a national hero. In May of 1963, less than a year after her victory with Meredith, Motley fought for the reinstatement of more than 1,000 black schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama, who had been suspended or expelled from public school for participating in peaceful civil rights demonstrations there. According to Anne S. Emmanuel in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reinstating those students was what Motley considered "her most satisfying accomplishment." Four months later, she spearheaded the fund's successful efforts to prevent Governor George C. Wallace from blocking school desegregation in four Alabama counties.

Her accomplishments in the courtroom brought Motley enormous recognition. She was both feared and revered. As U.S. Congressman John Lewis remembered on his Web site, "in the heart of the American South, during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 50's and 60's, there were only two lawyers that made white segregationists tremble and gave civil rights workers hope—Constance Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall. When someone mentioned that one of them was coming to town, we knew there would be a shake-up for the cause of justice." Over her entire career, Motley never lost her desire to change the world for the better, and her reputation only grew more distinguished.

Drawn into Politics

By early 1964, Motley's high-profile work as a civil rights lawyer had drawn her into the world of politics. When, in February of that year, a Democratic candidate for the New York State Senate from Manhattan's Upper West Side was ruled off the ballot because of an election-law technicality, Motley was offered the nomination. She accepted the challenge, and after a short, low-key campaign, defeated the Republican candidate, Thomas G. Weaver, by a margin of 3,555 votes to 2,261, becoming the first black woman to be elected to the New York State Senate. She was reelected that November, and remained in the job until February of 1965, when she was chosen by the unanimous vote of the New York City Council to fill a one-year vacancy as Manhattan borough president.

In citywide elections nine months later, she was reelected to a full four-year term with the endorsement of Democratic, Republican, and Liberal voters. She thus became the first woman and the third African American to hold the office. While serving as borough president, Motley helped draw up a master plan to revitalize Harlem, which included the construction of a new state office building and city police academy. In an interview with the New Yorker, she described the plan as "the most exciting project I've been associated with," and emphasized the vital importance of "reclaim[ing] the inner city, rather than wip[ing] it out." In addition, she worked to improve city schools, rehabilitate housing in Harlem and other underprivileged areas, and pressed for more local community involvement in city planning. In March of 1965, she represented New York City on the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

First Female African American Federal Judge

In 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York requested that President Lyndon B. Johnson nominate Constance Motley for a federal district court judgeship in that state's southern district. Johnson agreed, and despite vigorous opposition to her appointment both from conservative southern senators and other federal judges—at the time, only two other women were U.S. district judges—the Senate confirmed the nomination in August of that year. Motley thus became the nation's first female African American federal judge. In June of 1982, she was named chief judge of the court, succeeding Judge Lloyd F. MacMahon. Four years later she assumed the position of senior judge, making her the top paid African American woman in government at the time. Committed to her work, and convinced of how important it was to others, Motley continued to try cases until her death.

Motley credits former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, with whom she worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, with giving her both the opportunity and the moral support she needed to succeed in the fiercely competitive judicial arena. "Lost in the shuffle may well be his personal, unique contributions to the advancement of women in the law," she wrote in a personal tribute to Marshall published in Ms. "[He] aid[ed] my career at a time when nobody was hiring women lawyers…. I am now a senior United States district judge, and I was the chief judge of the country's largest federal trial court from 1982 until 1986. But if it had not been for Thurgood Marshall, nobody would ever have heard of Constance Baker Motley."

In October of 1993, Motley was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, along with such distinguished honorees as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Rosalyn Yalow and Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund. Over the years, she had received dozens of awards and honorary degrees for her contributions to the legal profession and to the advancement of civil rights. Motley died on September 28, 2005, in New York. She will be remembered as a fearless defender of justice, who fulfilled her desire to change the world for the better.



Brenner, Marie, Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women, Crown, 2000.

Lyman, Darryl, Great African American Women, J. David, 1999.


Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 15, 2005, p. A13.

Ebony, January 1963.

Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2005, p. B10.

Ms., September/October 1991, pp. 88-89.

Newsweek, September 5, 1994.

New Yorker, September 17, 1966, pp. 48-50; May 16, 1994, pp. 65-71.

New York Post, October 6, 2005, p. 42.

New York Times, September 29, 2005, p. B10.

USA Today, November 23, 2005, p. A23.

Vogue, May 1967.


"Congressman John Lewis Remembers Constance Motley," U.S. House of Representatives, http://www.house.gov/johnlewis/05pressreleases/pr093005.html (December 2, 2005).

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Barbara Barbieri McGrath (1953–) Biography - Personal to Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) Biography