Legendary Judge Leaves Indelible Mark

Constance Baker Motley built legacy as a civil rights trailblazer

Legendary judge Constance Baker Motley left an indelible mark as a civil rights advocate and gifted scholar.
Motley, a Columbia Law School graduate, started her legal career with the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund as a law clerk for Thurgood Marshall.

She argued the 1957 “Little Rock Nine” integration case that resulted in federal troops being called in to protect nine black students at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. A draft complaint that she prepared would later become Brown v. Board of Education.

“Her commitment to civil rights was absolutely tremendous,” says Hank Thomas of Stone Mountain, Georgia, one of the original 13 Freedom Riders represented by Motley when they tested compliance of the Supreme Court’s ruling to desegregate interstate transportation.

In 1966, she became the first black woman appointed to the federal bench.

Bernice Bouie Donald, U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Tennessee and the first black female U.S. bankruptcy judge, says, “All of us knew we were standing on her shoulders.”

In September, Motley died at age 84, one year shy of her 40th anniversary on the bench.

Laura Taylor Swain, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York, counted it a privilege to serve as Motley’s law clerk, and she considered Motley a mentor. Swain says, “Her legacy lives on in all aspects of American society and in a diverse federal judiciary.”

“Long before I met her, I knew her name,” says Theodore M. Shaw, director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. “Constance Baker Motley’s name was an institution.”

“She was the first woman lawyer on the Legal Defense Fund staff,” Shaw says. “She set a standard for excellence not only for women lawyers but for all lawyers.”

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