March 15, 2022
Constance Baker Motley was born on September 14, 1921 in New Haven CT, the 9th of 12 children of West Indian immigrants. When Constance was 15 years old, she read a speech by Abraham Lincoln declaring that the legal profession was the most challenging of all vocations. Constance took this as a challenge and made it her ambition to one day become an attorney despite the current societal overtones that frowned upon such for women, especially black women.
Motley earned a scholarship to attend Fisk University in Nashville, TN. However due to the challenges of racial segregation in the South, and the impact that had on her ability to ride public transportation, Motley transferred to New York University after a year and a half. There she earned her Bachelors Degree in Economics. Motley was then accepted at Columbia Law School where she graduated with honors in 1946.
Motley immediately went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund where she became law clerk to Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black United States Supreme Court Justice. Under Marshall’s tutelage, Motley took special interest in school desegregation cases and soon became the preeminent trial attorney for the NAACP on these issues. Motley authored the original complaint in the Brown v. Board of Education case and went on to argue 9 more cases before the United States Supreme Court. She was the first African American woman to do so.
Motley’s fervor for justice led her to a path of public service. In 1964, she was elected to the New York State Senate where she worked for two years until 1966, at which time she was appointed to the bench by President Lyndon Johnson for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She was the first black woman to ever be appointed to a federal judgeship.
Motley has been revered as a role model by New York Governor Kathy Hochul, United States Supreme Court Nominee Ketanji Jackson Brown and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. We pay tribute and thank Constance Baker Motley for being a trailblazer that these women and all generations of women can look to for inspiration.