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Civil Rights Attorney Dies

By Vivek Viswanathan, Contributing Writer

After an eminent legal career that spanned six decades, Constance Baker Motley, the renowned civil rights attorney and first African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary, died last Wednesday in Manhattan. She was 84.

In a time in which few women were lawyers, Motley served for two decades on the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she developed a reputation as one of the nation’s most skilled civil rights attorneys.

In the two decades after World War II, as the Civil Rights Movement swept across the South, Motley helped prepare briefs for numerous school desegregation cases sponsored by the NAACP, including the epochal Brown v. Board of Education.

Motley argued many of the most significant civil rights cases, including those involving James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi and the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. Motley successfully argued nine of the 10 cases that she presented before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s.

As a young lawyer, she also represented Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visiting the civil rights leader in jail and arguing for his freedom to protest.

Motley’s granddaughter, Hannah R. Motley ’09, recalled in an e-mail to The Crimson a homework assignment that she did on Dr. King when she was eight years old: “I asked [my grandmother] if she knew him, and she chuckled. ‘Knew him? I used to have to go down there to that awful jailhouse and try to help him get out!’”

Between 1964 and 1966, Motley became the first African-American woman elected to the New York State Senate, the first African-American woman elected to serve as Manhattan Borough President, and the first African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary.

After former U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy ’48 proposed Motley for the judiciary, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on January 25, 1966.

Motley later became Chief Judge of the court and served on the bench for the remainder of her life.

Born in New Haven, Conn. in 1921, she rose from humble beginnings. Her family did not have the money to send her to college. However, after she gave a speech on civil rights at a local meeting when she was 18 years old—“You know how 18-year-olds can sound off,” she would later recall in the New York Times—a white businessman in the audience was so impressed that he decided to finance her education.

Judge Motley earned her undergraduate degree from New York University and her law degree from Columbia Law School.

Reflecting on her grandmother’s life, Hannah Motley remembered the judge’s virtues of “poise, integrity, and courage.”

“This was a woman who worked tirelessly up until the last week of her life in the service of others—in the service of justice,” Motley wrote. “She encountered such ugliness in her life—from the slums of New Haven where she grew up to the Jim Crow South where she fought for freedom—and it was her mission to impart beauty and goodness to this world.”

In her 1998 autobiography, “Equal Justice Under Law,” she cautioned that racism has not been eradicated and will “follow us and bewilder us” into the next century.

But she also reflected on the changes that have taken place for African-Americans since the 1950s, writing that a “revolution in American society has occurred.”

Motley is survived by three sisters, a brother, her husband, and her son, Joel Motley III ’74, who also attended Harvard Law School.

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