Coordinator for Educational Programs
When Constance Baker Motley began working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the late 1940s, there were few women lawyers in the United States and only a handful of African-American women lawyers. Motley had the intelligence and determination to overcome both those barriers and become one of the leading civil rights attorneys in the nation. The Archives’ new video, “NAACP Attorney Constance Baker Motley Confronts Racism at Ole Miss,” shows her facing down racist protesters in Mississippi while representing James Meredith in the University of Mississippi desegregation case in the early 1960s.
In this video, her son Joel describes her strength of character and ability to see past the virulent racism and violence around her. At the same time, Motley was able to support plaintiffs like Meredith and Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Homes at the University of Georgia through the trials they faced in breaking down the walls of segregation and racism embedded in the foundations of the United States.
Constance Baker Motley’s accomplishments have often been overshadowed in the historical memory by her mentor, Justice Thurgood Marshall. But as an attorney who won 9 out of 10 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, we should remember her importance to the civil rights movement, especially during Women’s History Month. Moreover, with the support of Mayor Robert F. Wagner, she became the first African-American woman elected to the NY State Senate and the first woman elected Manhattan borough president. After her sojourn in New York politics, President Johnson appointed Motley to be the first African-American federal judge. She was truly a trail blazer in a pre-feminist era. (You can learn more about Motley’s appointment to the federal bench and how it became enveloped in the conflict between Senator Robert Kennedy and President Johnson in the Archives’ video “Lyndon Johnson Appoints Constance Baker Motley to be a Federal Judge.”)
I hope you will take the time to watch both videos and use them in your classrooms. (You can also learn more about Fannie Lou Hamer, another pioneering woman in the civil rights movement, in the Archives’ Mississippi Freedom Summer lesson.) If you have any questions about Constance Baker Motley, the videos, or want to bring a class to the Archives, please free to contact me in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org