Constance Baker Motlet (94532)
Credit: New England Historical Society photo

Folks might think that I conferred with the Harlem Cultural Archives in shaping my syllabus this semester on the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Such was not the case, but we have had remarkable moments of serendipity over the past two weeks with my students able to attend the HCA events on Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark and Judge Constance Baker Motley.

It was particularly enlightening for them last week at the Harlem Hospital, where they enjoyed speeches from such notables as Rep. Charles Rangel, former Mayor David Dinkins and Councilwoman Inez Dickens as they celebrated the co-naming of a lane for Motley.

Although the ceremony took place in the hospital’s auditorium, the lane that will bear her name is the service road behind little Riverton, adjacent to Harlem River Drive, between 135th and 138th Streets.

Along with the number of dignitaries were members of Motley’s family, including her son Joel Motley, who presented segments of a documentary on his mother that the HCA will assist in the completion. The brief film is a good introduction to Motley’s splendidly productive life that began Sept. 14, 1921, in New Haven, Conn., where she was born. She was the ninth of 12 children whose parents were immigrants for the island nation of Nevis in the West Indies. Her father was a chef at Yale University for student groups, including the secret society Skull and Bones, and her mother was a domestic worker.

Motley attended integrated schools while coming of age in New Haven, but that didn’t mean she escaped the menace of racism. On more than one occasion she was met with rejection at public facilities because of her race. These moments and others sharpened her sense of racial injustice and sparked her interest in bringing about change.

After hearing an inspirational speech by George Crawford, an alumnus of Yale Law School, Motley’s dream to become a lawyer began.

A local philanthropist, Clarence Blakeslee, provided some of the financial assistance she needed to attend Fisk University. Later, she became a student at New York University, from which she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1943. Three years later, she earned her law degree from Columbia University School of Law.

Her remarkable native abilities did not go unnoticed, and in 1945 she was hired as a law clerk by Thurgood Marshall. Among her first assignments were working on court-martial cases filed after World War II. Her ties with Marshall continued with the NAACP, where he oversaw the organization’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She would commit her fine legal acumen in the drafting of a complaint in 1950 that would evolve into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Marshall and his team of lawyers.

This victory was just a beginning for Motley, who was the counsel for a number of students involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and her legal expertise was indispensable in Dr. Martin Luther King’s fight to bring down the walls of segregation in Albany, Ga, in the early 1960s. She won nine of 10 civil rights cases argued before the Supreme Court.

Some of the most dramatic footage in the documentary shows Motley as the lawyer for Charlene Hunter and Hamilton Holmes in their attempts to integrate the University of Georgia. She is also seen aiding James Meredith during his turbulent time in Mississippi and encountering all kinds of racial insults and attacks on the campus at Oxford.

In 1964, Motley set aside her legal ventures and entered the political arena, becoming the first African-American to win election to the New York State Senate. A year later, she obtained another first as the first female president of the Borough of Manhattan. From this post she helped to revitalize Central and East Harlem and other underserved areas of the city. She was succeeded in that post by Percy E. Sutton.

Another monumental breakthrough for her was when she became the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge, a position promoted enthusiastically by Sen. Robert Kennedy and Sen. Jacob Javits. President Johnson appointed her to the bench of the Southern District of New York, thus giving her an opportunity to adjudicate several important civil rights cases, including one in 1978 when she ruled in favor of a female reporter, giving her access to the New York Yankee’s locker room.

In 1982, she became the chief judge of the district and four years later the senior judge. When she wasn’t dealing with a parade of cases, she found time to write her book “Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography” that was published in 1999.

From her book there is a presage of the woman she would become. “I grew up in a lower-middle-class household, where my father was head of the house,” she wrote. “Generally, West Indian men (particularly those from the British islands) wanted to demonstrate, always, that they, were as capable as any man. They considered themselves superior to the average American Negro because of their education in the English Standard Schools. My father never discussed race relations as such, but he always expressed his views on Black Americans, who he thought were generally lazy, no good, undisciplined and lacking middle-class values. (He had the same myopic view of American Blacks as most whites.) The few friends he brought home from work were either white or West Indian, preferably Nevisian, with a lifestyle closer to his own: ‘hardworking, law-abiding, self-respecting’ people, who appeared in public with white shirts, starched collars, ties and jackets. My father always expected to find the parlor straightened up and ready for company. When he came home to rest for a couple of hours during the day, we children had to be as quiet as church mice.”

She was not quiet on the bench and still there as a federal judge when she died of congestive heart failure in 2005. Among her survivors were her husband Joel Motley Jr. and her son, Joel Motley III.