Constance Baker Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1921. In high school, she decided she would become a lawyer after reading a book where Abraham Lincoln said that law was the one of the most difficult professions. At age 15, she decided that’s what she was going to do, sparking her interest in “becoming something more than a hairdresser.”
As president of the New Haven Negro Youth Council, she gave a speech in December 1940 about issues affecting the Dixwell Avenue community. Mr. Clarence Blakeslee, a wealthy New Haven businessman was so impressed with her that he wondered why she was not in college. She told him her family did not have the money to send her to college. When she told Blakeslee that she wanted to be a lawyer, he said, “Well, I don’t know much about women in the law, but if that ‘s what you want to do, I’ll be happy to pay you way for as long as you want to go.”
She would first enter Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, but she later returned to New York University. She enrolled in Columbia University Law School, and graduated in 1946. It was at Columbia that her path to legal greatness began.
In the spring of 1945, Herman Taylor, also a Columbia student asked her, “don’t you want this job at the [NAACP] Legal Defense Fund? They are looking for a clerk to replace me.” She said sure and went down to the NAACP offices. Thurgood Marshall hired her as a clerk and she began her career with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in October 1945.
After graduating law school, she became a full-time lawyer with the Fund and she would go on to handle some of its most notable cases, like the desegregation of the University of Mississippi and one of the two cases that sought enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Thurgood Marshall celebrated his 56th birthday on July, 2, 1964. That same day, Congress passed The Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination in places of public accommodation. The next day, the action of two business owners in Atlanta, Georgia – one of whom would later become Governor of the state – sparked controversy that would make legal history.
On July 3, 1964, three Atlanta ministers – George Willis, Jr., Woodrow T. Lewis, and Alfred Dunn – tried to enter The Pickrick Restaurant near the campus of Georgia Tech to test their rights under the newly passed law. Lester Maddox, owner of the establishment, and his son chased the men brandishing pistols and the handle of a pick ax. The men filed a lawsuit and the two lawyers handling the case were William H. Alexander from Atlanta and Constance Baker Motley with the NAACP.
Around the same time, Moreton Rolleston, owner of The Heart of Atlanta Motel filed his own lawsuit seeking to have the Civil Rights Act declared unconstitutional. Both cases – The Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. The United States and Willis v. The Pickrick Restaurant – were argued in federal court and by July 22nd, each business had been ordered to integrate. Maddox later decided to close his business instead of complying with the court ruling. Rolleston appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court, which held oral argument on October 5th. Two months later on December 14th, the Supreme Court upheld the Civil Rights Act effectively prohibiting segregation.
Georgia Tech purchased the site of the former Pickrick restaurant in 1965 turning it into overflow parking for its campus police and today the school uses it for green space. The Hilton now occupies the site on 255 Courtland Street where the Heart of Atlanta motel once stood.
Motley would later go on to become the first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate and to become the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge. She served as a judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York from 1966 to 1986, serving as its Chief Judge the last four years of her tenure. She continued as a Senior Judge from 1986 to 2005.
While as NAACP counsel, she was involved in more than 200 cases as either lead counsel or during the appeal of a case. She died of heart failure in 2005.
Justice requires that the American community repair the damage that decades of racial segregation have done to its black members. We end this century with the realization that racism, a problem we should have resolved with strong and consistent national leadership, will follow us and bewilder us in the next.
– Constance Baker Motley (1998, from her biography, Equal Justice Under Law
*Listen to “Lady Justice” Episode #022 to learn more about Constance Baker Motley. Our guest, Joel Motley, III, shares a son’s reflections about this phenomenal legal figure.