Happy Women’s History Month! This is the 20th blog of a series of blogs called “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known American women who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).
The focus of today’s blog is Constance Baker Motley, the NAACP attorney who became the first Black woman to serve in the New York State Senate and the first to become a federal judge.
This is her story.
Pursuing a Law Degree
According to BlackHistory.News.Columbia.edu, Constance Baker Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1921. She attended New York University and graduated in 1943. She went on to enroll at Columbia University School of Law and subsequently received her law degree in 1946. That same year, she married Joel Motley, who worked as a real estate broker.
Work with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund
Having worked with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. while in law school, she quickly landed the position there as their principal trial attorney. For the next two decades, Motley worked on any school segregation case that came her way. In the early 50s, she wrote the legal brief for the Brown v. Board of Education case. During this time, she also represented Black clients in public housing cases as well as in the Mississippi transportation segregation cases, which resulted in the desegregation of railroad and bus terminals in Jackson, Mississippi.
Fighting for Desegregation
Through the 1960s, Motley continued fighting for desegregation by taking cases like Turner v. City of Memphis, which resulted in the desegregation of a restaurant in a Memphis Airport Terminal. Another of her cases was Watson v. City of Memphis which resulted in the desegregation of all Memphis recreational facilities. She also took many cases before the Supreme Court involving sit-ins, winning nine out of the ten she argued.
Serving in the Legislature and Judiciary
After 20 years of taking case after case for the NAACP, Motley became the first Black woman to serve in the New York State Senate in 1964. Her platform pushed civil rights legislation as well as more low and middle-class housing. She ended up serving as the President of the Borough of Manhattan for the New York City Council for a full four-year term, plus one year as a fill-in. Around the same time in 1966, Motley was appointed to the federal judiciary, becoming the first Black woman to do so. She became chief judge in 1982 and assumed senior status just four years later. Read more about Constance Baker Motley here.
Read another post from the blog series “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know” here.