Marian Wright EdelmanOp-EdOpinion

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Happy 100th Birthday to the Great Constance Baker Motley!

On Sept. 14, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) celebrated the great life and legacy of trailblazing lawyer and judge Constance Baker Motley on what would have been her 100th birthday. She argued some of our nation’s most important court cases to end racial segregation in public schools and accommodations along with a small band of brilliant and visionary lawyers led by Charles Houston including Thurgood Marshall, Jack Greenberg and James Nabrit Jr. Their work resulted in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.

She was the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge and a role model, heroine, and inspiration for me and many others, including Vice President Kamala Harris, who said in her introductory remarks at the LDF celebration: “Constance Baker Motley spent her life defying expectations … She showed us the power of the law to effect change. And she taught us to see what can be, unburdened by what has been.”

Connie Motley was the ninth of twelve children born to Caribbean immigrants in New Haven, Connecticut, home of Yale University. Her father worked as a chef at Yale’s Skull and Bones Club, a secret society for the most privileged students like Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. After graduating from her predominantly white high school with an excellent record, Connie Motley dreamed about becoming a lawyer but had to take a job as a domestic. How many brilliant Black boys and girls like her have stories that end there? But she found another job with the National Youth Administration, and while she was giving a speech at a local community center a wealthy white philanthropist heard her and offered to pay her college tuition.

She went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee because she was eager to see the South, but transferred to New York University and earned a degree in economics in 1943. She then went on to Columbia Law School where she met Thurgood Marshall. He offered her a job as a law clerk in LDF’s New York office, and when she graduated she began her work with LDF full-time.

Constance Baker Motley soon became a leading civil rights attorney and made history in the 1950s and 1960s opening doors and crumbling the walls of legal apartheid. She helped craft the argument against “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education and was the lead attorney in many desegregation cases, including successfully representing James Meredith in front of the U.S. Supreme Court when he sought admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962. She was the first Black woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court and the first Black woman lawyer many people across the South had ever seen, who were often caught off guard by the tall, elegant, brilliant woman with the powerful presence. She later said Thurgood Marshall chose her for key assignments in the South because he felt a Black woman lawyer would be safer than a Black man. As the first Black woman admitted to the bar in Mississippi I too found I could get away with statements and actions Black male lawyers may not have dared. She argued ten cases in front of the Supreme Court during her career and won nine.

Connie Motley then decided to become involved in New York politics, and became the first Black woman elected to the New York state Senate in 1964 and the first woman borough president of Manhattan in 1965. As a politician she championed opportunities for underprivileged groups, but her political career didn’t end her brilliant legal career. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed her a United States district judge for the southern district of New York, making her the first Black woman ever appointed to the federal judiciary. She became the chief judge of the district in 1982 and assumed senior status in 1986.

Constance Baker Motley was a very special lantern in my life. When I graduated from law school, I went to work at LDF in New York City, where Julius Chambers and I were the first two Earl Warren fellows — a program designed to train and support young lawyers seeking to practice civil rights law in the South. Julius went to Charlotte, North Carolina where he tried groundbreaking civil rights cases and succeeded Jack Greenberg as head of LDF. I went to Mississippi. I will never forget the first day I walked into segregationist federal District Judge Harold Cox’s chambers. All the white male lawyers sitting around the table froze in shocked silence as I, a 24-year-old Black female lawyer, entered the chambers. It was if I were an alien from Mars. As I walked around the table extending my hand to each white lawyer, none shook it. I sat and remembered Connie Motley, who had gone before to try cases in that closed violent society and racially segregated state.

At the close of the LDF celebration honoring Constance Baker Motley’s 100th birthday, LDF alumna Kristen Clarke, our nation’s Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice, said: “For generations Black women like her have been the backbone of our national fight for progress, insisting again and again on the true meanings and values of democracy. And far too often our contributions have been ignored or diminished. But it is simply impossible to diminish the accomplishments of Ms. Motley … With determination and a keen legal mind, Ms. Motley turned the gears of justice, and when those gears did not exist she built them herself.” Thank you, Connie! 

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