Constance Baker Motley was the first African American woman to be a federal judge. In her early career, she had worked alongside of Thurgood Marshall in litigating the desegregation cases, including Brown v. Board of Education. She lived a life of firsts, and I have managed to capture only a few of those many “firsts” here.
She was born the 9th of 12 children to immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Her mother was a domestic worker and her father worked as a chef at Yale University. Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, she experienced racism first-hand, once being denied to a skating rink and another time being prohibited from enjoying a public beach. By the time she was in high school, she had already become inspired to get involved with the Civil Rights Movement, and specifically, she wanted to become a lawyer and work with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, which she ultimately did.
She began college at Fisk, but then transferred to NYU and got her bachelor’s degree in 1943. She then graduated from Columbia University School of Law in 1946. She had already started working with Thurgood Marshall as a law student, working on court martial cases that had been filed in the aftermath of WWII. But, upon her graduation, she was official hired by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as their first woman attorney. She was immediately immersed in important civil rights cases and became a leading figure in the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the key strategists in the legal Civil Rights Movement.
She wrote the original complaint in Brown. She was the first African American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court of the United States in Meredith v. Fair, which desegregated Ole Miss. She argued 10 cases before SCOTUS between 1961 and 1964, winning 9. She, along with other LDF lawyers, represented Martin Luther King, Jr. and others when they were arrested during civil rights marches and protests. In his book “Crusaders in the Courts,” Jack Greenberg described her as “a dogged opponent of Southern segregationists, who found her tougher than Grant at Vicksburg. She dug in to a position and wouldn’t let go in the face of all kinds of threats, evasion, obfuscation, and delay.”
In 1964, she became the first African American woman on the NY State Senate. She then became the first woman to serve as the Manhattan Borough President. It is notable that she was the first candidate for that office to receive bipartisan endorsement by the Republican, Democratic, and Liberal Parties. Then, in 1966, LBJ nominated her to be a judge on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, making her the first African American woman to sit on the federal bench and the first woman judge in the Southern District of NY.
She had married in 1946, just after she graduated from law school, and had one son. She died in 2005 at the age of 84.
This linked video shows her talking about why she decided to become a lawyer. There are numerous other excellent videos posted on YouTube, which show clips from the same interview of her talking about various aspects of her life and experiences, including her experiences working with Thurgood Marshall, working on the Brown case, the dangers she faced as an African American lawyer working in the Civil Rights Movement, her childhood, facing discrimination as she was growing up, and many others. It was tough to pick just one because they are all fantastic. And, there’s a good full-length documentary about her, which is worth watching if you have a chance; it’s called “Justice is a Black Woman: The Life and Work of Constance Baker Motley.”