A Pioneer for Justice

Constance (Baker) Motley was the ninth of twelve children born to immigrants of Nevis, a Caribbean Island. When she graduated from high school, she had no money to attend college. She went to work for the National Youth Administration. A local philanthropist was so impressed with her community involvement that he agreed to pay for her college education. She earned a BA degree in Economics from New York University and a Law Degree from Columbia University. While in law school future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, hired her to work on court martial cases arising from World War II.

When Constance graduated from law school, she was hired by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She was the lead attorney for Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists. She was the original author of the Brown vs. Board of Education pleading and became the first African American woman to argue the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

She was the lead attorney who won James Meredith’s right to attend the University of Mississippi. She won nine out of the ten cases she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. The tenth case was later reversed in her favor.

Constance was a pioneer in other ways as well. She was the first African American woman to serve in the New York Senate and became the Borough President for Manhattan. President Lyndon Johnson nominated her to become a Federal Judge for the Southern District of New York. She was the first African American to serve as a federal judge. Judge Motley was the presiding judge in a number of important cases.

While Judge Motley has been honored by those in the legal profession, she remains a hidden hero to most Americans. Many Americans go about their lives by excelling in their calling. They often face obstacles, but don’t let them deter them. They lead lives of purpose and through their persistence become pioneers for others to follow.

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“When I was 15, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. No one thought this was a good idea.”

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