Constance Baker Motley, Civil Rights Lawyer and Federal Judge, Dies at 84


When she was 15, Constance Baker Motley was turned away from a public beach because she was Black. It was only then — even though her mother was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — that the teenager really became interested in civil rights.

She went to law school and found herself fighting racism in landmark segregation cases including Brown v. Board of Education, the Central High School case in Arkansas and the case that let James Meredith enroll at the University of Mississippi.

Motley also broke barriers herself: She was the first Black woman appointed to the federal bench, as well the first one elected to the New York state Senate.

Motley, who would have celebrated her 40th anniversary on the bench next year, died this week of congestive heart failure at NYU Downtown Hospital, said her son, Joel Motley III. She was 84.

“She is a person of a kind and stature the likes of which they’re not making anymore,” said Chief Judge Michael Mukasey in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where Motley served.

From 1961 to 1964, Motley won nine of 10 civil rights cases she argued before the Supreme Court.

Motley, who spent two decades with the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, started out there in 1945 as a law clerk to Thurgood Marshall, then its chief counsel and later a Supreme Court justice. In 1950, she prepared the draft complaint for what would become Brown v. Board of Education.

The Supreme Court ruled in her and her colleagues’ favor in 1954 in a decision credited with toppling public school segregation in America while touching off resistance across the country and leading to some of the racial clashes of the 1960s.

In the early 1960s, she personally argued the Meredith case as well as the suit that resulted in the enrollment of two Black students at the University of Georgia.

Motley also argued the 1957 case in Little Rock, Ark., that led President Eisenhower to call in federal troops to protect nine black students at Central High.

Also in the early 1960s, she successfully argued for 1,000 school children to be reinstated 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. During this time, she represented the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as well, defending his right to march in Birmingham and Albany, Ga.

Motley and the Legal Defense and Education Fund, committed to a careful strategy of dismantling segregation through the courts, were amazed by the emergence of more militant tactics such as lunch-counter sit-ins, but she came to believe that litigation was not the only road to equality.

Recalling a 1963 visit to King in jail, she remarked, “It was then I realized that we did indeed have a new civil rights leader — a man willing to die for our freedom.”

Motley was born in New Haven, Conn., the ninth of 12 children. Her mother, Rachel Baker, was a founder of the New Haven chapter of the NAACP. Her father, Willoughby Alva Baker, worked as a chef for student organizations at Yale University.

It was the beach incident that solidified the course her life would take. Though her parents could not afford to send her to college, a local philanthropist, Clarence W. Blakeslee, offered to pay for her education after hearing her speak at a community meeting.

Associated Press

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