August 30, 1966:
Black in the Day
On this day Constance Baker Motley was confirmed as U.S. district judge and becomes the first Black woman on the federal bench. But this wasn’t the only time she made history. She was also first African American woman elected to the New York State Senate in 1964. Making history and making law are the twin components of Constance Baker Motley’s extraordinary life and career. After graduating from Columbia’s Law School in 1946, Motley’s legal career began as a law clerk in the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Education Fund, where she clerked for Thurgood Marshall. 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.
In 1950 she wrote the original complaint in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. The first African-American woman ever to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Meredith v. Fair she won James Meredith‘s effort to be the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962. Motley was successful in nine of the ten cases she argued before the Supreme Court. The tenth decision, regarding jury composition, was eventually overturned in her favor. She was otherwise a key legal strategist in the civil rights movement, helping to desegregate Southern schools, buses, and lunch counters.
She received a Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1984. In 1993, she was inducted into National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal. The NAACP awarded her the Spingarn Medal, the organization’s highest honor, in 2003. Motley was a prominent honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
Judge Constance Baker Motley died of congestive heart failure on September 28, 2005 at the age of 84. Over the course of her long career in law and politics she has received over 70 awards and 8 honorary degrees from universities.