Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Constance Baker Motley
Constance Baker Motley
Portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
"When I went to law school, nobody heard of civil rights."

Constance Baker Motley (1921–2005)
Law 1946
LLD 2003 (hon.)

Over fifty-plus years as a jurist, Constance Baker Motley has had a major impact on ending racial discrimination. As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's associate counsel, she participated in writing the briefs for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.,, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case that ended school segregation. From October 1961 to the end of 1964, Motley won nine of the 10 civil rights cases she argued before the Court, including James Meredith's successful suit to attend the University of Mississippi. She went on to break down other gender and race barriers as the first African-American woman elected to the New York state senate (1964) and to the Manhattan borough presidency (1965). Appointed to a judgeship for the Southern District of New York in 1966, she became the first African-American woman on the federal bench and, in 1982, the first African-American woman to serve as chief judge. Motley assumed senior judge status in 1986, and in 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens' Medal in recognition of her achievements and service to the nation.

After graduating from New York University in 1943, Motley took a well-paying job with a wartime agency that aided the dependents of servicemen. A year later, she turned down a promotion to attend Columbia Law School. "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard, a complete waste of time," her supervisor told her. "Women don't get anywhere in the law." While still a law student at Columbia, Motley met Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP's legal director, who offered her a job as a law clerk in the organization's New York office. After receiving her law degree in 1946, Motley became a full-fledged member of the NAACP's legal staff. In April 1995, she returned to Columbia to receive the Florence E. Allen Award, given by the New York Women's Bar Association and named after the woman Motley said was her role model as a female judge. In February 2004, Motley came back to Columbia Law School for an event marking the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

COVER STORY Motley profiled in Columbia magazine
THE YEAR OF BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION A celebration at Columbia Law School
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