CONSTANCE BAKER MOTLEY (1921 – 2005) was a civil rights activist, lawyer, judge, state senator and borough president.
Born on September 14, 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut, Baker was the ninth of twelve children whose parents emigrated from the Caribbean island of Nevis. While attending school, she was active in the New Haven Youth Council and the New Haven Adult Community Council. Baker joined the local chapter of the (NAACP) when she was denied admission to a local skating rink and public beach. With the help of local philanthropist Clarence Blakeslee, Baker attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Tennessee, before deciding to transfer to New York University. She graduated in 1943 with a degree in economics and went on to receive her law degree from Columbia Law School in 1946 and married Joel Wilson Motley, a real estate and insurance broker.
She began her legal career as a law clerk in the fledgling NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. While at Columbia she became acquainted with Thurgood Marshall, helping file Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. She was the LDF’s first female attorney and became Associate Counsel to the LDF, making her the NAACP’s lead trial attorney. Baker became the first black woman to ever argue a case before the Supreme Court in Meredith v. Fair, which helped James Meredith become the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962.
Two years later, Baker was elected to the New York Senate, the first black woman to hold that office. The following year she was named Manhattan borough president — the first woman and black person in that position. In 1966, she was appointed a federal judgeship by Lyndon Johnson, becoming the first black female federal court judge. She was appointed senior judge, in 1986, for the Southern District of New York—the largest federal trial court in the United States.
Baker wrote countless articles and legal observations which reflected her stance on civil rights and its importance in America, including: Equal Justice Under Law: The Life of a Pioneer for Black Civil Rights and Women’s Rights. In the article, Baker presents a detailed legal history of her fight against the “separate but equal” racial practices of the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1993, Baker was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizen Medal in 2001, and the NAACP awarded her the Spingarn Medal, the organization’s highest honor, in 2003. On September 28, 2005, one week after her eighty-forth birthday, Baker died of congestive heart failure in New York.
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