Constance Motley Dies; Rights Lawyer, Judge

President Lyndon B. Johnson names Motley to a federal judgeship, a first for a black woman, in 1966. She had been Manhattan borough president.
President Lyndon B. Johnson names Motley to a federal judgeship, a first for a black woman, in 1966. She had been Manhattan borough president. (Associated Press)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 29, 2005

Judge Constance Baker Motley, 84, the first African American woman appointed to the federal judiciary and the only woman on the NAACP legal team that won the epochal school desegregation decision Brown v. Board of Education, died Sept. 21 of congestive heart failure at New York University Downtown Hospital. At the time of her death, she was senior judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Long before she ascended to the federal bench, she was a key figure in many of the major legal battles of the civil rights era. She represented Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights leaders when they were locked up in fetid Southern jail cells. She stayed in Medgar Evers's home not long before an assassin killed him in his front yard, and she was on the podium at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 when King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

As a young lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, she helped Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel of the fund, write the legal brief for the Brown case and then listened as he delivered his argument before the Supreme Court.

She and her colleagues did not anticipate the unanimous decision, she recalled. "We thought we might come out with five to four, but when it was unanimous, we were flabbergasted," she said in a 2003 interview with an American Bar Association magazine. "In fact, we thought we might even lose. . . . [Chief Justice] Earl Warren did that. He understood, having been a politician, that you had to have unanimity, because if you had a divided court, the Southerners would still be at it. . . . What we did not anticipate was the massive resistance to Brown in the South."

After the 1954 ruling, she threw herself into what she called "the second civil war." Writing hundreds of court papers and legal briefs to enforce Brown, she argued 10 school desegregation cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning nine of them.

In 1956, she represented Autherine Lucy, the daughter of a black tenant farmer who had applied to graduate school at the University of Alabama.

In 1961, she represented Charlayne Hunter (now Hunter-Gault) and Hamilton Holmes in their effort to enter the University of Georgia.

In 1962, she represented James H. Meredith in his arduous but ultimately successful battle to gain admission to the University of Mississippi. Marshall gave her the case, she said, because she was a woman. "Thurgood's theory was, in the South, they don't bother black women because they all have mammies," she once said.

Meredith was admitted after 16 months of legal wrangling, numerous court hearings and tortuous legal resistance on the part of Mississippi officials, including Gov. Ross Barnett, who eventually was held in contempt of court.

"She was indomitable," said Jack Greenberg, who succeeded Marshall as director-counsel of the NAACP Legal and Education Fund and is now a professor at Columbia University School of Law. "She would take on a project like opening up the University of Mississippi and just keep coming back again and again and again. She was like Grant at Vicksburg. She just dug in there and stayed there until they rolled over."

In 1963, she represented more than 1,000 black children in Birmingham who had been suspended from school for participating in civil rights demonstrations. The same year, she led the NAACP's successful effort to prevent Gov. George C. Wallace from blocking school desegregation in four Alabama counties.

Both in the courtroom and on the bench, she impressed those who knew her with what Greenberg called her presence. "That Motley woman," as her Southern antagonists often referred to her, was tall and always elegantly dressed. Always well prepared, deeply versed in the intricacies of the law, she was soft-spoken and reserved, Greenberg recalled, but formidable.

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