Deservedly, Kamala Harris is getting reams of press given her historical ascendancy and the possibility of becoming the first Black vice president. Many accounts of this major achievement have inevitably listed a few of her Black women predecessors in the political arena, including Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan and Carol Moseley Braun.
We would like to add Constance Baker Motley to the roster, though her legacy resounds in the judicial realm, for the most part.
A civil rights icon, Motley was born Constance Baker Sept. 14 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut She was the ninth of 12 children born to Rachel Huggins and McCullough Alva Baker, who were immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Her father worked as a chef for various groups of students at Yale University, most notably the Skull and Bones Society. Baker’s mother worked as a domestic but was a founder of the city’s branch of the NAACP and exposed her daughter to the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois and African American history.
What Baker didn’t acquire at home, she got from her church and these lessons would be useful when she became president of the New Haven Youth Council and secretary of the city’s Adult Community Council. She graduated with honors from Hillhouse High School in 1939. Her dream to become a lawyer was put on hold since she didn’t have the means to attend college and she decided to seek employment at the National Youth Administration.
A momentary delay in her pursuits did not deter her from community activism and it was through these endeavors that she gained the attention of philanthropist Clarence Blakeslee, who was so enthralled with a speech she delivered that he offered to pay her tuition to higher education. It was a godsend and she almost immediately enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville but later returned to study at New York University.
Traveling by train to Tennessee, Baker was introduced to the restrictions of Jim Crow, which she did not encounter coming of age in New Haven. When the train reached Cincinnati, she recounted in her autobiography “Equal Justice Under Law” (1998), she was ordered into an old, rusty car marked “Colored.” It was a shattering experience, “Although I had known this would happen,” she wrote, “I was both frightened and humiliated. All I knew for sure was that I could do nothing about this new reality.”
In 1943, she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree and three years later a Bachelor of Law from Columbia Law School.
Baker was in her second year of law school when Thurgood Marshall hired her as a law clerk and assigned her to court-martial cases filed after World War II. Subsequently, she began her civil rights career working in the Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) at the NAACP. The post entrusted her as the lead trial attorney in several major civil rights cases, including her representation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In this capacity she visited King in jail and at various sites that had been bombed by segregationists. On one occasion she even spent a night in jail with Medgar Evers who was under armed guard.
She was the author of the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education in 1950, later becoming the first African American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court in Meredith v. Fair––James Meredith’s effort to attend the University of Mississippi––just one of nine out of 10 cases she won before the Supreme Court. And even the case she lost, was later overturned. Her legal acumen was instrumental in the fight to desegregate southern schools, buses and lunch counters.
Outside the courtroom, Baker was equally successful. In 1964, she was elected to the New York State Senate, where she devoted considerable time and advocacy to housing equality, especially for Black, Latino and low-income tenants. She was a pacesetter in the quest to improve the impoverished neighborhoods of the city.
When she left the NAACP in 1965, she had compiled an envious record of accomplishments and her acclaim continued as the first Black woman elected Manhattan Borough president, which she held only a year before accepting President Johnson’s appointment to the U.S. Southern District of New York in 1966. She was the nation’s first Black female federal judge.
For over seven months Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi blocked the appointment, arguing that her past civil rights involvement and an accusation that she belonged to the Communist Party were unacceptable. She was eventually confirmed and set about dealing with a docket of critical issues. Among her breakthrough decisions was her ruling in 1978 that allowed female reporters to enter the locker rooms of Major League Baseball teams. In Ludtke v. Kuhn, Melissa Ludtke filed a lawsuit against MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn that was upheld by Baker, by now Judge Motley after her marriage to Joel Motley, Jr. in 1946.
Her honors and tributes are extensive, and in 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 2001 President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal. In 2003, she must have been extremely proud of being a recipient of the Spingarn Award from her former employer, the NAACP.
All of the praise and adoration did not interfere with her desire to mentor a number of aspiring judges, none more prominent than Judge Ann Thompson. “She was just a very gracious person,” Thompson told a reporter, commenting on their relationship and Judge Baker’s support.
She died of congestive heart failure at Sept. 28 2005, in New York. Her services were held at Riverside Church.