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Constance Baker Motley, 84; 1st Black Woman to Serve as a Federal Judge

Times Staff Writer

Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman on the federal bench and a lawyer who helped steer many of the civil rights movement’s pivotal legal battles -- including the landmark 1954 school desegregation case Brown vs. Board of Education and James Meredith’s fight to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962 -- died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at a New York City hospital. She was 84.

An attorney for the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund for two decades beginning in the 1940s, Motley helped plot strategy in the Brown case, which ended “separate but equal” school policies. She also was the chief lawyer for Meredith, whose admission to Ole Miss broke barriers in the state that was widely considered the South’s most intractable bastion of racism.

The Meredith case was one of 10 that Motley argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Of the 10 cases, she won nine, a formidable record that colleagues said stemmed from her meticulous preparation and skill at oral argument.

“She was a great lawyer,” William T. Coleman Jr., the former secretary of Transportation, who met Motley in the 1950s when he was an NAACP advisor, said Thursday.

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“If you are a master of the facts, a master of the record, and also master of the best argument the other side can make ... you can usually prevail. And she did,” Coleman said.

Motley also represented journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault in her successful fight to integrate the University of Georgia at Athens in 1961. She led the legal campaigns that opened the University of Alabama and South Carolina’s Clemson College (now Clemson University) to blacks in 1963.

She was the first black woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court. In the 1960s she also was the first woman to be elected president of the borough of Manhattan and the first black woman to be a New York state senator.

She served 39 years on the federal bench, including four years as chief of the U.S. District Court’s Southern District of New York, before going on senior status in 1986. One of her most important cases, in 1978, gave women sportswriters access to the New York Yankees’ locker room.

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“She was a very, very fearless judge on this court,” said Judge Robert Carter, a senior federal judge who as lead counsel worked with Motley on the Brown case 51 years ago.

Motley was born in New Haven, Conn., the ninth of 12 children of West Indies immigrants. Her father was a chef at Yale University while her mother was a seamstress and teacher who helped found a local chapter of the NAACP.

Motley was one of very few in the West Indian community who would go on to earn a professional degree, despite her parents’ lack of encouragement. “My mother thought I should be a hairdresser; my father had no thoughts on the subject,” she wrote, adding that such indifference only intensified her resolve.

Her father held black Americans in low regard and socialized mainly with other Caribbean immigrants. His daughter did not begin to identify with African Americans until she entered high school and began reading about black history, including the works of civil rights leader W.E.B Du Bois.

At 15 she decided she wanted to become a lawyer, but when she graduated from New Haven High School in 1939 she did not have the money for college. The following year, however, she attracted the attention of Clarence W. Blakeslee, a philanthropist who had helped found a center for black youths. At a meeting called to solicit opinions on why more blacks were not using the center, Motley pointed out that the center board lacked grass-roots support. Blakeslee was so impressed by the poised and articulate Motley that he called her up and asked why she was not in college.

When she told him that money was the problem, he offered her essentially a blank check. He paid for her to attend Fisk College in Nashville, Tenn., where she majored in economics, and Columbia University, where she earned her law degree in 1946. “He paid every dollar,” Motley recalled in a Hartford Courant interview last year. “He’d ask nothing in return. That’s how our country moved forward. Not all white people were bad.”

The year before she earned her law degree she had joined the NAACP as a law clerk for Thurgood Marshall, the group’s chief counsel and future Supreme Court justice. She was admitted to the New York state bar in 1948 and began trying cases for the NAACP in 1949.

In 1950 she prepared the draft complaint for the case that would make civil rights history, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.

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“She was a full participant in mapping out strategy and tactics,” Jack Greenberg, a Columbia law professor who was one of the seven attorneys who argued the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of the NAACP, said Thursday.

The strategy Motley and a team of lawyers, psychologists, sociologists and historians decided on was to demonstrate that “segregation, even where facilities are equal, has a harmful psychological effect on the ability of black children to learn,” she wrote in her memoir.

The decision knocking down the separate-but-equal rule was announced May 17, 1954. It opened years of national tumult over the rights of blacks in a society that once flourished under their enslavement and segregation.

In her 1992 memoir, “In My Place,” Hunter-Gault remembered Motley as a commanding, solidly built woman who “talked about the South in those days as if it were a war zone and she was fighting in a revolution. No one ... was going to distract her from carrying her task to a successful conclusion.”

She described Motley’s courtroom style as deceptively passive: She let witnesses get away with outrageous statements, then “suddenly threw a curveball with so much skill and power that she would knock them off their chair.”

For the Meredith case, Motley made 22 trips to Mississippi, where she worked closely with Medgar Evers, the local NAACP coordinator. She often felt in jeopardy: She recalled one time when Evers, realizing that their car was being trailed by state police, urged her to hide her yellow legal pad and “don’t look back.”

Evers was assassinated in 1963, the year after Meredith was admitted to the University of Mississippi amid violence that claimed two lives.

Repeatedly throughout her career, Motley was rudely reminded of her status in the eyes of some whites and many men.

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Taxi drivers often refused to stop for her when she was a New York borough president. As a new federal judge she was often introduced in formal settings with vague niceties while male colleagues were trumpeted with a recitation of their entire resume.

She said she learned long ago from Marshall that the best tactic was to “laugh off these affronts.”

When she helped Carter argue a case involving equal salaries for black teachers in Mississippi in 1949, the white judge could not bring himself to address her as “Attorney Motley” or even as “Mrs. Motley.” The local newspaper referred to her as “the Motley woman.”

“People down there -- black and white -- had never seen a black woman lawyer before,” Carter recalled. “Connie, with her New England accent, was a revelation for them.”

Motley is survived by her husband, Joel; a son; three sisters, a brother and grandchildren.


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