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Constance Baker Motley

With the courts as her forum, attorney Constance Baker Motley broke the segregation barriers of Southern universities, opening the doors for blacks to attend higher education institutions of their choice. Nominated by President Johnson to become a Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1966, the largest federal trial court in the country, she was the first woman appointed to the Southern District bench and the first black woman appointed to the federal judiciary, where she has served for 37 years. She became the chief judge of the Southern District on June 1, 1982 and served until October 1,1986 when she became a senior judge.

Motley was born to West Indian immigrants in New Haven, Conn., where her father was a chef at several Yale University fraternity houses. She was an outstanding student, but her parents could not afford to send her to college. After graduating from high school, she took a position with the National Youth Administration. Philanthropist Clarence Blakelee, impressed by Motley's intelligence and a speech she had delivered, offered to finance her education. She enrolled at Fisk University and later transferred to New York University, where she earned a BA in economics in 1943. She went on to Columbia University School of Law. She met Thurgood Marshall, who hired her as a member of the legal staff at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). She remained with the fund after graduating in 1946.

Upon graduation, she was employed as a legal assistant for the LDF and later served as its associate counsel and principal trial attorney. In 1946, she married Joel Motley, a real estate broker.

During her tenure with LDF, Constance Baker Motley successfully argued the case of James Meredith against the University of Mississippi before the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Fifth Circuit. The Supreme Court denied Mississippi's request for review.

Motley's name appears on briefs in the Brown v. Board Education (1954) case. She also represented Charlayne Hunter Gault and Hamilton Holmes (University of Georgia), Vivian Malone and James Hood (University of Alabama) and Harvey Gantt (Clemson College, SC). As chief counsel, she also participated in many other school desegregation cases supported by the LDF, as well as cases in the fields of housing, transportation, recreation, and public accommodations.

In New York in 1964, she successfully ran for a seat in the state senate. In 1965, she was elected president of the borough of Manhattan. In 1966 she was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In 1982 she became chief judge and a senior judge in 1986.

Constance Baker Motley is the author of dozens of articles on legal and civil rights issues, including several personal tributes to Thurgood Marshall. She has received honorary doctorates from many colleges and universities, including Spelman College, Howard, Princeton and Brown Universities, and from many Connecticut institutions, including Yale, Trinity, Albertus Magnus, UConn., and the University of Hartford. Among her many other awards is her 1993 election to the National Women's Hall of Fame.

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