Mayor Robert F. Wagner swears in Constance
Baker Motley as Manhattan Borough President, 1965
Steven A. Levine
Coordinator for Educational Programs
In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I hope you will take the time to watch two videos about the life of Judge Constance Baker Motley, a lesser known but key figure in the legal battles of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. In the first video, her son, Joel Motley, describes his mother’s ideas on women’s leadership and how her sex might have played a role in her being passed over as director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1961, after President Kennedy appointed Thurgood Marshall a judge in the 2nd Circuit Court. In the second video, Joel Motley describes her appointment to a federal judgeship and how it was delayed by a controversy in the NY State Senate involving US Senator Robert Kennedy. This led to the direct intervention of President Lyndon Johnson and a fascinating phone conversation between Kennedy, Motley and Johnson, included in the video.
Constance Baker Motley worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund with Thurgood Marshall, winning 9 out of 10 cases she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. She also argued some of the most important desegregation cases, including the James Meredith case which desegregated the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in 1962. Her NY Times obituary described her work this way:
She visited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in jail, sang freedom songs in churches that had been bombed, and spent a night under armed guard with Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader who was later murdered.
But her métier was in the quieter, painstaking preparation and presentation of lawsuits that paved the way to fuller societal participation by blacks. She dressed elegantly, spoke in a low, lilting voice and, in case after case, earned a reputation as the chief courtroom tactician of the civil rights movement. (Click here to read the full obituary.)
Motley entered New York politics in 1964, becoming the first African-American woman elected to the NY State Senate and later the first woman elected Manhattan Borough President. But the law called her back when President Johnson appointed Motley a judge in New York’s Southern District in 1966, where she often used her position to uphold the rights of the poor and powerless.
The Archives also has a speech given by Mayor Wagner in praise of Constance Baker Motley and a lesson on Mississippi Freedom Summer from our Let Freedom Ring Curriculum.