Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley Biography

Activist, Lawyer, Government Official, Judge, Civil Rights Activist (1921–2005)
Constance Baker Motley was a legal advocate in the Civil Rights Movement. She became the first female African-American federal judge in 1966.


Federal Judge Constance Baker Motley was born in Connecticut in 1921. She later joined the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the NAACP and worked with Thurgood Marshall. Motley won notable civil rights victories in the U.S. Supreme Court, represented Martin Luther King Jr., served in the New York State Senate and was a city borough president. Perhaps most notably, though, she became the first black woman to be appointed to a federal judgeship in 1966. She died in New York City in 2005.

Early Life

Constance Baker Motley was born on September 14, 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut. One of nine children born to emigrants from the West Indies, Motley's parents came from the Caribbean Island, Nevis. Her mother, Rachel Baker, founded the New Haven National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; her father, Willoughby Alva Baker, was a chef for student organizations at Yale University.

Motley would later describe herself as an ambitious student. At age 15, after reading a book in which Abraham Lincoln said the most difficult occupation was the legal profession, she decided that she wanted to pursue legal studies. Additionally, the teenager was drawn into the civil rights campaign after being banned from a public beach for being an African American. In high school, Motley was motivated to become president of the local NAACP youth council.

Journey to Judgeship

Motley's passion turned from law to politics in 1964, when she became the first black woman to win election to the New York State Senate. The following year, she became the first female president of the borough of Manhattan—in this role, she focused on the revitalization of Harlem and East Harlem, as well as of other underprivileged areas of the city.

But the pinnacle of Motley's career was just around the corner. In 1966, she became the first black woman to serve as a federal judge; following the encouragement of New York Democratic Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Senator Jacob K. Javits, President Johnson appointed Motley to the federal bench of the Southern District of New York. During her time as a judge, Motley oversaw many civil rights cases. One case that received notoriety was her ruling in 1978 to allow a female reporter into the New York Yankees' locker room. Motley went on to become chief judge of the district in 1982, and senior judge in 1986.

Civil Rights Legacy

Motley continued to serve as a federal judge until her death. She died from congestive heart failure on September 28, 2005, at the NYU Downtown Hospital in Manhattan. She was survived by her husband, Joel Wilson Motley Jr., her son, Joel III, and three grandchildren. 

Motley will be remembered for decades to come for her tireless work on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement, and for such inspiring quotes as, "Something which we think is impossible now is not impossible in another decade." Motley also captured her legacy for future generations in her memoir, Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography, released on September 10, 1999.

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