By Rev. Dr. William H. Chavis, Jr.
Judge Constance Baker Motley was a legal giant and fearless for the cause of equal justice under the law. On September 14, 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut, Motley was born to West Indian parents. She graduated from New York University in 1943 and received her law degree from Columbia University School of Law in 1946. In 1945, while she still was a law student, the late great Thurgood Marshall hired her to be his law clerk at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Her career as an attorney for the Legal Defense Fund would lead her to serve in the trenches against white southern hostility opposed to the desegregation of public schools. She risked her life when she moved South to fight for equal opportunities for Blacks. She argued and worked tirelessly on the significant school segregated cases between 1945 and 1964 involving universities of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.
She lived when the South was very volatile as Blacks were demanding to attend schools with white children to receive an equal education. Motley found herself in fearful and dangerous situations in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. She navigated legal action for equal justice while living with the people she served because hotels did not accommodate Blacks.
Judge Motley was a pioneer on many fronts. These are her firsts: (1) first female attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1946, (2) first Black female to argue before the United States Supreme Court winning nine out of ten cases, (3) first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate, (4) first female Manhattan borough president, (5) Appointed by Lyndon Johnson in 1966, she was the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge. She became chief judge in 1982.
Motley played a pivotal role in the fight for equal justice in the South. However, she did not receive the recognition she deserved because she worked in the shadows of her boss and mentor, Thurgood Marshall.
As a young lawyer, she strategized with Marshall, Jack Greenberg, and others about writing the legal theory for Brown v. Board of Education. Motley wrote the original complaint about this landmark case to the United States Supreme Court. The legal brief argued segregated education in public schools is not equal as it violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In 1954, the Supreme Court agreed.
Motley spent most of her career as a lawyer fighting to obtain egalitarian gains for Blacks. One of her clients she met in a foul-smelling jail cell outside Americus, Georgia, was the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At times, to get judicial relief for her clients, she suffered indignities from judges who turned their backs to her in the courtroom. Others spoke to her as if she was ignorant of the law. In her book entitled, “Equal Justice Under the Law,” she wrote, “I was the kind of person who would not be put down. I rejected any notion that my race or sex would bar my success in life.”
President Biden’s newly appointed nominee to the United States Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji B. Jackson, stated that Judge Motley’s legal career inspired her to become a lawyer and a judge. Judge Jackson shares the same birth date with Judge Motley but 49 years apart.
Judge Motley died on September 28, 2005, at 84. She was married to Joel Motley, Jr., and raised one child, Joel W. Motley, III.