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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 136-139

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Using the Law for Social Change
Judge Constance Baker Motley

Nancy MacLean

Judge Constance Baker Motley was one of the architects of the civil rights revolution in American law. Her life's work speaks to questions about the relationship of litigation to lasting social change, as well as to issues of individual achievement in the face of powerful odds. Even a brief summary can suggest the range of research agendas her story might advance.

Born to a West Indian immigrant family in New Haven, Connecticut in 1921, Motley distinguished herself in school and community involvement. But with college so expensive in the Depression, this honors students from a family of twelve children only managed to attend due to a chance encounter with a wealthy white benefactor. Having begun at Fisk University, Motley earned a B.A. in Economics from New York University in 1943, and went on to earn her law degree at Columbia University in 1946.

The most fateful move of her career was taking a job as law clerk to Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF). In 1961, Motley was named associate counsel. She worked on many of the best-known lawsuits of the era, including Brown v. Board of Education (1954). She personally directed such cases as James Meredith's struggle for admission to the University of Mississippi. In the first half of the 1960s, Motley argued ten different civil rights cases before the Supreme Court—and won nine of them.

Moving into politics, she won election to the New York State Senate in 1964, and in 1965 was elected president of the borough of Manhattan by the New York City Council. The following year, President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the federal district court for the Southern District of New York, the largest federal trial court in the nation. In 1982, she became Chief Judge of that court, where she has held Senior Justice status since 1986.

Over more than fifty years of public service, Judge Motley was always a pioneer. The first female attorney on the LDF staff, she was the first black woman to serve in the New York Senate, the first black woman to argue before the Supreme Court, and the first black woman ever named to the federal bench. She was also the first woman elected to be Manhattan Borough President and the first to be named to the Southern District Court.

The central theme of that rich and varied career that invites research involves the relationship between popular struggle and litigation by attorneys [End Page 136] as strategies of social change. In Motley's story, questions about the use of law easily blend into questions about the relationship of professional black women to the civil rights struggle. There is now a vibrant body of scholarship on women in the grassroots black freedom struggle. Yet there has been virtually nothing to date about black women advancing the postwar movement as professionals. In the case of attorneys, the neglect seems almost criminal. The historical encyclopedia Black Women in America profiles twenty-seven such women. Leaving aside Judge Motley, the list includes Mary Frances Berry, Carol Mosely Braun, Kathleen Cleaver, Marian Wright Edelman, Patricia Roberts Harris, Barbara Jordan, Pauli Murray, and Eleanor Holmes Norton. Why historians have missed such an opportunity is a mystery.

One reason might be that the romance of popular struggle has led to the neglect of less dramatic legal work. Yet the understandable appeal of "history from below" should not lead to disregard of the courts' important role in producing change on a mass scale in the modern United States. Careers such as Motley's provide an opportunity to think about what came out of the civil rights movement, and women's movement as well—what the policy victories they won (and lost) have meant, and how they have since been preserved, altered, or undermined at law.

Historians need to understand better how legal change was both enabled by...


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