Encyclopedia Womannica

Politicians: Constance Baker Motley

Episode Summary

Constance Baker Motley (1941-2005) spent most of her life fighting for Civil Rights. She put her life at risk to change the course of American history -- but she’s often left out of the history books.

Episode Notes

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s politician spent most of her life fighting for Civil Rights. She put her life at risk to change the course of American history -- but she’s often left out of the history books. Let’s talk about Constance Baker Motley.

Constance Baker Motley was born on September 14, 1941 in New Haven, Connecticut. She was one of 12 children, born to working class immigrant parents from the West Indies. 

Constance was a bright child who grew up attending integrated schools, and quickly fell in love with reading. She didn’t learn much about Black history in school, but what she did learn about Civil Rights leaders inspired her. She decided she wanted to become a lawyer.

But Constance couldn’t afford higher education. She took a job as a maid for a while, before moving on to work for the National Youth Administration, an organization focused on providing work and educational opportunities for young adults. 

Constance was giving a speech at a local community center one evening when her oratory skills impressed a wealthy white philanthropist. He offered to pay for Constance’s college tuition!

She started attending college in 1941 at Fisk University in Nashville. She later wrote that the train ride down to Tennessee was the first time she experienced overt racism and Jim Crow laws, after being forced to ride in a broken down segregated train car. It was a perspective-changing moment for Constance.

Two years into Constance’s attendance at Fisk, she transferred to New York University and finished her bachelor’s degree in economics. Then, in 1944, Constance became the first Black woman to be accepted into Columbia Law School.

After graduating from Columbia in 1946, Constance worked for the NAACP’s legal staff under Thurgood Marshall -- who later became a Supreme Court justice. Over the course of her work at the NAACP, Constance assisted with almost 60 cases that ended up reaching the Supreme Court. She also personally argued 10 Supreme Court cases and won 9 of them.

Constance’s work integrated multiple southern state universities, putting her toe to toe with racist governors determined to bar Black students from schools. She helped protect the right to peaceful protest and opened up parks for Black Americans.

She did all that despite the sexism and racism she personally experienced during her legal career. Some judges actually turned their backs on her and refused to hear her speak. But Constance didn’t let others’ biases bar her from success. Her work made her a key player in the Civil Rights movement, and she even occasionally represented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..

Constance was constantly in danger while she was working in the South. Racists threatened her life, and the lives of other prominent figures in the Black community. Constance was barred from staying in hotels, so she had to stay with local activists -- but even that didn’t make her feel completely safe. Her friend and Mississippi Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered in his own driveway.

So, in 1965, Constance left her work in the South and moved back to New York City. Shortly after, she became the first Black woman to serve in the New York State Senate. She was also elected President of the Borough of Manhattan, which made her the first woman in that role. During her time as a politician, Constance focused on raising up underserved communities in the city, like Harlem and East Harlem.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Constance to the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York. A group of Southern senators fought to block her nomination, but they were unsuccessful. Constance was confirmed and became the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge. She would go on to become a Chief Judge of the court in 1982, and a Senior Judge in 1986.

Constance continued to bolster civil rights with her decisions as a judge, ruling in favor of low-income folks, prisoners, and women. 

Constance received honorary degrees from many universities, including Yale, Princeton, and Brown. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She received the Presidential Citizens Medal, and the NAACP’s highest honor, the Spingarn Medal.

Constance Baker Motley passed away in New York on September 28, 2005. Her legacy lives on in the countless women and people of color she inspired.

All month, we’re talking about politicians. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our newsletter, Womannica Weekly. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @encyclopediawomannica and follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!