Constance Baker Motley of Caribbean Parentage Left Her Stamp on US History

Constance Baker Motley (Photo courtesy YouTube)


Whenever the struggle for Civil Rights is referenced, especially in the case of Brown v. the Bd. of Education (954), Thurgood Marshall is usually the name credited for the landmark case. Yet there was a woman who spent her legal career fighting alongside Marshall (her mentor) and even led the fight in the United States Supreme Court (USSC) in some of the most prominent Civil Rights cases. Constance Baker Motley (nee Constance Baker) surmounted race and gender obstacles with her brilliance and earned the title: “Civil Rights Queen.”

In 1906 Rachel Keziah Huggins a teacher and seamstress, migrated to the United States from her native Caribbean Island of Nevis. In 1907 McCullough Alva Baker, a cobbler also migrated to the US from Nevis. They followed in the footsteps of Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the US Treasury who also migrated from Nevis in 1772.

Baker and Huggins started a family that produced 12 children and lived in New Haven Connecticut. Their ninth child, Constance Baker was born in 1921. Her parents instilled that strong Caribbean discipline that if you want to achieve anything in life, you need a sound education. Her father was a chef (one source says steward) at Yale University. Her mother was homemaker.

At age 19, a philanthropist impressed by Constance Baker’s brilliance, paid for her entire college education at Fisk University, New York University and Columbia Law School. Before graduating with a law degree in 1946, she began working with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund of which Thurgood Marshall was lead attorney. Marshall became the first African-American justice on the USSC.

Motley had a stellar life and career. It was she who wrote the original brief for Brown v. Board of Education (1954) – the landmark case that led to the desegregation of public schools and later integrated universities in states such as Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. She was first African-American woman to argue a case before the USSC. She won 9 out of 10 (90 percent) landmark civil rights cases she argued before the court.

At one time she was the only woman lawyer active in the NAACP. Her 90 percent wins include Hamilton v. Alabama (1961) which guaranteed right to counsel. The case involved a mentally disabled African-American man who faced capital punishment and was put before the courts without the presence of a lawyer – a violation of his 14th Amendment rights, Motley argued. All nine justices agreed; Meredith v. Fair (1962) involved the right to higher education. The USSC ruled that the University of Mississippi must admit James Meredith after the state appealed a lower court decision; Watson v. City of Memphis (1963) involved desegregation. Memphis had said it would desegregate its public recreational facilities over a number of years. Motley argued that that would be unconstitutional based on Brown v. Bd. and that desegregation should take place with “with all deliberate speed.” The Court agreed; Bouie v. City of Columbia (1964) involved due process rights. South Carolina’s Supreme Court had approved the expansion of trespassing laws under which two black students were arrested during a sit-in at a lunch counter. Motley argued and the USSC agreed that the law was unconstitutional and that the due process rights of the two black students were violated.

In addition Motley assisted with some 60 other Civil Rights cases. She was also the first African-American woman to be appointed a federal judge (1966), was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, the first woman to serve as Manhattan Borough President, and first African-American woman to serve as Senator in the NY State Senate.
The SC case that Motley lost was Swain v. Alabama, 380 U.S. 202 (1965). An African American man was convicted of rape in the Circuit Court of Talladega County, Alabama. However the prosecutor struck all African-American venipersons (persons who were lawfully summoned for jury duty) in the county where none had served since 1950. The case was appealed to the USSC. The USSC ruled inter alia: “A defendant in a criminal case is not constitutionally entitled to a proportionate number of his race on the trial jury or the jury panel.” And “Purposeful racial discrimination is not satisfactorily established by showing only that an identifiable group has been underrepresented by as much as 10%.” Swain v. Alabama, 380 U.S. 202 (1965) was overturned 21 years later, the court in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).

During her 20 – year association with the NAACP LDF, she asserted herself before judges and prosecutors who were all men. She told a prosecutor who had referred to her as ‘she’, that if he could not address her by her name he should not address her at all. She had also responded to a judge’s question as why she, a woman, was the lead counsel in the case. She quickly explained that it was her case and that she was the most qualified attorney to argue the case.

An NPR article quoted author/biographer Tomiko Brown-Nagin as saying that while Motely credits her mentor Thurgood Marshall for making her career, he “ended up denying her this job as director counsel of the NAACP LDF. And she believed it was, in part, because she was a woman. They did not see women as leaders. – even in institutions that are dedicated to the cause of equality – there can be blind spots and inequities that one has to struggle against.” She was appointed chief counsel of the NAACP LDF in 1949).

The historian Arthur M. Schlesenger, Jr. wrote “The idea of leadership affirms the capacity of individuals to move, inspire and mobilize masses of people so that they act together in pursuit of an end. Sometimes leadership serves good purposes; sometimes bad; but whether the end is benign or evil, great leaders are those men and women who leave their personal stamp on history.”

Constance Baker Motley wrote “I was the kind of person who would not be put down. – I rejected any notion that my race or sex would bar my success in life.”

She built a highway on which other women of all colors are traveling. When Kitanji Brown Jackson was confirmed as the first African-American woman to the USSC, she paid tribute to Constance Baker Motley, whom she called her role model on whose shoulders she stands and noted the coincidence that both of their birthdays is September 14.

Motley who passed away September 28, 2005, in New York has certainly left her stamp on history.


The views expressed in this article are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.