Constance Baker Motley, lawyer & judge, Died at 84


Constance Baker Motley died on September 28, 2005 from congestive heart failure at the age of 84, she was an African-American civil rights activist, lawyer, judge, state senator, and Borough President of Manhattan, New York City.

Born on September 14, 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut, the ninth of twelve children, her parents, Rachel Huggins and McCullough Alva Baker, were immigrants from Nevis, in the Caribbean.

Her mother was a domestic worker, and her father worked as a chef for different Yale University student societies, including the secret society Skull and Bones.

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.

After graduating from Columbia’s Law School in 1946, Baker was hired by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) as a civil rights lawyer. As the fund’s first female attorney, she became Associate Counsel to the LDF, making her a lead trial attorney in a number of early and significant civil rights cases.

Baker visited churches that were fire bombed, sang freedom songs, and visited Rev. Martin Luther King while he sat in jail, as well as spending a night with civil rights activist Medgar Evers under armed guard.

Motley was elected on February 4, 1964, to the New York State Senate (21st district), to fill the vacancy caused by the election of James Lopez Watson to the New York City Civil Court.

She was the first African American woman to sit in the State Senate. She took her seat in the 174th New York State Legislature, was re-elected in November 1964 to the175th New York State Legislature, and resigned her seat when she was chosen on February 23, 1965, as Manhattan Borough President—-the first woman in that position.

In November 1965, she was elected to succeed herself for a full four-year term.

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.

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.”