Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to be a federal judge, the first female Manhattan borough president, and the first black woman to serve in the New York State Senate died two days ago, at 84.
Judge Motley was at the center of the firestorm that raged through the South in the two decades after World War II, as blacks and their white allies pressed to end the segregation that had gripped the region since Reconstruction. She visited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in jail, sang freedom songs in churches that had been bombed, and spent a night under armed guard with Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader who was later murdered.
Born ninth of 12 children in New Haven to immigrant parents from the small Caribbean island of Nevis, Motley’s father worked as a chef for Yale student organizations, including the Skull and Bones society. She decided she wanted to be a lawyer early on, and tried to finance her education by being a domestic worker. She got a break when a white businessman and philanthropist heard her give a speech at an African-American social center, and offered to finance her education. She went to Fisk University in Nashville for a year, before transferring to New York University, where she graduated in 1943. She went on to Columbia Law School, and after graduation worked as a civil rights attorney for $50 a week.
After becoming a federal judge in 1966, Judge Motley ruled in many cases, but her decisions often reflected her past. She decided on behalf of welfare recipients, low-income Medicaid patients and a prisoner who claimed to have been unconstitutionally punished by 372 days of solitary confinement, whom she awarded damages.
She continued to try cases after she took senior status. Her hope as a judge was that she would change the world for the better, she said.
“The work I’m doing now will affect people’s lives intimately,” she said in an interview with The New York Times in 1977, “it may even change them.”
Via my dad, who writes, “Jill, Look at Thursday’s obits, there is a very nice article about the first African-American woman federal judge who just recently died. It might be the basis for something to write about on your blog. Also when you start feeling down about the burdens of being a poor overworked law student, it can offer some inspiration.” Indeed, it did. As cliche as it sounds, the world is certainly a better place because of Judge Motley’s presence on it.
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