News coverage of United States federal Judge Tanya Chutkan—the Black woman and Jamaican immigrant currently overseeing one of Donald Trump’s four criminal trials—so often mentions the racist and violent threats thrown at her from the MAGA Klan. Reading it, I am reminded the history of a groundbreaking (and glass ceiling-breaking) judge and civil rights attorney. The daughter of immigrants from Nevis, and the first Black woman appointed to the federal bench, Constance Baker Motley was born Sept.14, 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut, and joined the ancestors on Sept. 28, 2005.
It took until 2009 for a woman of Caribbean heritage—Puerto Rican Justice Sonia Sotomayor—to be seated on the Supreme Court, and until 2022 for a Black woman, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, to join her. Their ascension to the nation’s highest bench owes much to earlier battles fought and won by Motley, even though she was denied her final goal: a seat on SCOTUS.
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I held an informal (and completely unscientific) survey this week, questioning a number of friends aged 45-75—as well as my 44-year-old editor. All of them took Black studies classes in college, and some had women’s studies as well. None of them knew anything about Motley.
Frankly, at first I was shocked, but as the responses continued to come in, I understood: Far too often, the stories of Black women who played significant roles in the civil rights movement are either glossed over or virtually ignored.
“How many barriers can one person break?” That’s the question this two-minute video from the Untold History YouTube channel seeks to answer. For a quick look at Motley’s record of shattering glass ceilings, one after another, it does the job.
Please watch and share it, so that more people might know her name.
The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, typically referred to as simply “LDF,” celebrated the 100th anniversary of Motley’s birth in 2021 with “The Life and Legacy of Constance Baker Motley.”
She was the ninth of 12 children born to Rachel Huggins and McCullough Alva Baker, immigrants from the Caribbean island Nevis. Her mother was a community activist and founded the New Haven NAACP. Motley graduated from New York University in 1943 and attended Columbia Law School. She began her career at LDF after receiving her law degree in 1946. LDF’s first female attorney, Motley rose to prominence as the chief courtroom strategist of the civil rights movement. In addition to successfully litigating cases that ended segregation in Memphis restaurants and at whites-only lunch counters in Birmingham, Alabama, Motley defended Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s right to march in Albany, Georgia.
Motley claimed her greatest professional achievement was the reinstatement of 1,100 Black children in Birmingham who had been expelled for taking part in street demonstrations in the spring of 1963. Motley faced the danger of her work head-on — from driving through Ku Klux Klan territory to defend the right of Black students to attend the University of Georgia to spending hours in county jails across the deep South helping to secure the release of detained civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr.
Motley was a key architect in the fight for desegregation in the South. From 1945 to 1964, Motley worked on all of the major school desegregation cases brought by LDF. She led the litigation of the case that integrated the University of Georgia and directed the legal campaign that resulted in the admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962, paving the way for the integration of universities across the south.
LDF also streamed this 58-minute tribute, with participants like Sherrilyn Ifill, Vice President Kamala Harris, her son Joel Motley, and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke. The program also includes a panel discussion moderated by LDF’s Janai Nelson, with Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Martha S. Jones, and Sara Moss.
In 2015, Joel Motley and Rick Rodgers produced and directed the documentary short titled “The Trials of Constance Baker Motley.” It had quite the festival run; give the trailer a watch to get a glimpse of Motley’s sense of humor in her own words.
Tributes to Motley always raise the question of why she wasn’t appointed to SCOTUS, despite the fact that she was eminently qualified. In 2022, Washington Post columnist James Hohmann explored that question, in an opinion piece titled, “The Black woman judge passed over twice by Democrats.”
Motley, who went by Connie, faced countless indignities. She graduated from New York University and Columbia Law School, and a Wall Street firm offered her a job interview based on her stellar academic record. But the firm wouldn’t even meet with her when she showed up for the appointment because she was Black. Instead, she took a job at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson had intended to nominate Motley to take [Thurgood] Marshall’s seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit when he resigned to become solicitor general — a stepping-stone to the Supreme Court in 1967. But then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), remembered by history as a civil rights champion, pressed Johnson to pick a White man over Motley for the appellate court. Kennedy called Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach in July 1965 to complain that naming Motley would be too risky from a “political and public relations viewpoint.” Katzenbach summarized the call in a memo to Johnson. “I think there is merit in Sen. Kennedy’s assessment,” the attorney general told the president. (Johnson nominated Motley to the District Court for the Southern District of New York a year later. The American Bar Association declined to give Motley a “highly qualified” rating on the dubious grounds that she lacked trial experience in New York, even though she’d litigated hundreds of cases in federal courts. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman James O. Eastland (D-Miss.) accused her of being a communist sympathizer and held up Motley’s confirmation for seven months.)
A dozen years later, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Attorney General Griffin Bell had veto power over judicial nominations and opposed Motley’s elevation to the 2nd Circuit because they’d tangled when she was a lawyer for the Legal Defense Fund. Carter eventually nominated Amalya Kearse, a Black woman who was a partner at a major law firm and didn’t have critics inside his administration.
Along the way, Motley mentored Sonia Sotomayor after the future justice joined Motley’s court in 1992.
Also in 2022, Tomiko Brown-Nagin—attorney, author, and dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute—wrote an article titled, “This Black Woman Could Have Served on the Supreme Court Decades Ago. She Has Some Lessons for Ketanji Brown Jackson,” for Politico.
Constance Baker Motley had sterling qualifications. It didn’t matter to her critics.
… Motley’s sterling qualifications did not matter much to the critics who denied and diminished her accomplishments and her character. Detractors could not — or would not — face the truth: Despite the era’s rampant discrimination, this Black woman’s professional accomplishments far surpassed those of many other lawyers, including male and white judicial nominees. So she never got the nod.
I hope — in spite of our fractious politics — that we will see a degree of bipartisan agreement with the sentiment expressed by Republican Sen. Jacob K. Javits, when he enthusiastically supported Motley for the bench in 1966, calling her appointment a “breakthrough.”
“The greatest tribute” to Motley, he said, was that she would have earned the position on the basis of her “talent and training,” irrespective of race or gender. The same is true of Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Motley would be thrilled to see an African American woman replace Breyer. That justice will stand squarely on her shoulders.
Motley served as both a role model and mentor for other women; for Women’s History Month 2023, women judges spoke about her legacy for the U.S. State Courts website’s “Judiciary News” vertical.
“She had extraordinary intelligence, fortitude, personal presence, and a desire to have an impact in the world,” said Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who served as a law clerk for Motley, and later was a fellow judge with Motley in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York until Motley’s death in 2005. “Projecting that confidence and intelligence is the only way she could have survived and been successful at what she did.”
Appointed to the bench in 1966, Motley quietly befriended and guided younger women judges. Her influence as a mentor was especially pronounced among Black women judges. Judge Anne Thompson, of the District of New Jersey, received a personal note shortly after her appointment in 1979. “She was just a very gracious person,” said Thompson, who eventually brought her law clerks to meet with Motley every year.
Motley also built confidence by entrusting clerks with highly demanding assignments.
“The trust she gave her clerks was mind-boggling, but it taught me I could do this work,” Swain said. “You’d look in a mirror and say, ‘If she believes I can do this, I must be able to do this.’ And I did.”
In addition to her own clerks, Motley inspired generations of women lawyers who became judges themselves, including Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first African American woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
Much of what is written about Motley focuses on her work as an attorney and judge. But what did Motley have to say?
Her 1999 autobiography, “Equal Justice Under Law,” includes chapters about her strict upbringing in a very traditional and conservative West Indian family, in a community with other West Indians. I found those chapters to be really interesting, given that she grew up and became a civil rights activist. She talks about her childhood—where “mischievous children were not permitted”—in this charming four-minute clip from a 2022 interview with journalist Renee Poussaint for “The Visionary Project.”
In another clip from “The Visionary Project,” Motley talks about her unlikely decision to become a lawyer.
In yet another clip she talks about clerking for Thurgood Marshall while a law student as Columbia University.
And in this final clip from “The Visionary Project,” Motley shares her first encounters with guns while challenging racist laws in Alabama.
I hope this brief introduction to Judge Motley has whet your appetite for her remarkable story and immeasurable impact on our nation’s history. Join me in the comments for more about her, and for the Weekly Caribbean News Roundup.