Shaping a Civil Rights Vanguard: The Earliest Influences on Constance Baker Motley

By Wolfe, Noel K. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, August 2014 | Go to article overview

Shaping a Civil Rights Vanguard: The Earliest Influences on Constance Baker Motley


Wolfe, Noel K., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Constance Baker Motley was a vanguard for both the civil rights and women's rights movements. She was a preeminent civil rights trial attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from the 1950s through the mid-1960s. She argued ten cases before the United States Supreme Court and was the lead attorney in the James Meredith desegregation case against the University of Mississippi. Motley was a woman of firsts--the first African American woman to serve in the New York State Senate, the first woman to act as Manhattan Borough President, the first African American woman appointed to the federal bench and the first African American woman to be chief judge of any court. Yet, despite Motley's remarkable accomplishments, historians and legal scholars have largely ignored her.

In writing this article, I drew from Motley's autobiography that was published in 1998 after she had taken senior status on the U.S. District Court. Despite potential scholarly concerns about relying on a person's memoir in investigating their life, I chose to privilege Motley's voice and how she constructed her life for a broader public. Scholars who have published articles on Motley's life(1) tend to focus primarily on her life as an attorney or judge. There has been no significant scholarly work examining Motley's formative years as a means to understanding and appreciating her professional success and demeanor. Her autobiography is a critical tool in this examination.

As a civil rights attorney, Motley was both an actor for and an embodiment of the change that she was seeking--"equal justice under law."(2) She encountered personal and professional discrimination based on both her gender and race--a combination few of her colleagues experienced. How Motley constructed her identity--as an African American woman and a lawyer--was influenced first by her Caribbean immigrant parents and later by mentors in her chosen profession. Being remembered as merely a list of "firsts" does a disservice to Motley's acumen as an attorney and the major roadblocks of racism and sexism that she had to overcome in order to have such an illustrious career. This article illuminates the influences on the first half of Motley's extraordinary life, through her early career as a trial attorney for the NAACP LDF.

The Early Years: Family and Community

Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1921, the ninth of twelve children born to immigrant parents from Nevis.3 Her father Willoughby Alva Baker immigrated to the United States in 1906 and her mother Rachel followed the next year.4 Rachel and Willoughby were married in October 1907 at St. Luke's Episcopal Church: 5 St. Luke's, one of four black churches in New Haven during the mid-19[th] century, was formed on June 7, 1844 after a separation of the black and white congregants of Trinity Parish.(6) While the first minister of the newly formed parish was white, by 1856 the congregation was led by a black minister.(7) This church provided the Bakers and other members with a "community of social equals with whom [they] could both worship and socialize."(8) Conveniently, the church was located less than one mile from the Day Street home that the Baker family rented.(9)

By 1920, the multifamily dwelling at Day Street saw a much-expanded Baker family. Willoughby and Rachel had four children in the first thirteen years that they were married: Joseph (age 10), Olive (age 8), Edna (age 7), and Maxwell (age 6). (10) While many of the residents on Day Street were first or second generation immigrants from the British West Indies, there was also one man from China, a man born in Africa but of Italian descent, several African American families and one boarder from Germany. (11) The Baker family also had the benefit of relatives living on the same street. Edward Huggins, Constance's uncle on her mother's side, (12) his wife Meloria and their four children lived only a few houses away. (13) This was the neighborhood and community into which Constance Baker Motley was born--a neighborhood that she described as "thoroughly integated. …

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