Judge Constance Motley Dies

As a judge and civil rights lawyer, Judge Motley made great contributions to gain equal opportunities for many


When Judge Constance Baker Motley was a child, her mother wanted her to be a hairdresser, but Motley had different plans for herself.

 After reading a comment by Abraham Lincoln that the legal profession was the most difficult, Motley decided at age 15 that she wanted to be a lawyer. She wanted the challenge. With that dream, Motley grew up to become a prominent civil rights attorney.    

 On Wednesday morning at the age of 84, Judge Constance Baker Motley died of congestive heart failure at New York University Downtown Hospital, her commitment to fighting inequalities has left the world in a better place.

 Motley was educated at FiskUniversity briefly before she transferred to New York University (NYU) in 1942.  At NYU, she received a bachelor’s degree in economics.  In 1944, she was one of the first black women to be accepted into ColumbiaUniversityLawSchool.

 After receiving her law degree in 1946, she joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund office in New York.  From 1945 to 1964, Judge Motley worked on all of the major school segregation cases supported by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  She was the only woman on the NAACP legal team that won the Brown vs. Board of Education case.

            On January 25, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson, appointed her to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, making her the first African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary.  On June 1, 1982, she broke another barrier and became the first woman and the first African-American to serve as Chief Judge for the Southern District of New York.  She held this position until October 1, 1986.

            “Woman lawyers were a joke in most courthouses and unheard of in virtually every place except New York City,” Judge Motley once wrote in Ms. Magazine.  “The whole town turned out to see the Negro lawyers from New York from one of whom [was] a woman.”

         Although described as soft-spoken and reserved, Judge Motley will be remembered for her dedication and vigor for handling minority and women’s issues.  She was the author of “Equal Justice Under Law: The Life of a Pioneer for Black Civil Rights and Woman’s Rights.”

 Through her relentless work, Judge Motley is one of the great figures whose work has made this society a better place for minorities and women.  While it is said that minorities, from African-Americans to women, have a long way to go, Judge Motley played a prominent role in helping  minorities come a long way.