Constance Baker Motley: One Woman's Fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice under Law

Constance Baker Motley: One Woman's Fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice under Law

by Gary L. Ford Jr.


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When the name Constance Baker Motley is mentioned, more often than not, the response is “Who was she?” or “What did she do?” The answer is multifaceted, complex, and inspiring.

Constance Baker Motley was an African American woman; the daughter of immigrants from Nevis, British West Indies; a wife; and a mother who became a pioneer and trailblazer in the legal profession. She broke down barriers, overcame gender constraints, and operated outside the boundaries placed on black women by society and the civil rights movement. In Constance Baker Motley: One Woman’s Fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice under Law, Gary L. Ford Jr. explores the key role Motley played in the legal fight to desegregate public schools as well as colleges, universities, housing, transportation, lunch counters, museums, libraries, parks, and other public accommodations.
The only female attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., Motley was also the only woman who argued desegregation cases in court during much of the civil rights movement. From 1946 through 1964, she was a key litigator and legal strategist for landmark civil rights cases including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and represented Martin Luther King Jr. as well as other protesters arrested and jailed as a result of their participation in sit-ins, marches, and freedom rides.
Motley was a leader who exhibited a leadership style that reflected her personality traits, skills, and strengths. She was a visionary who formed alliances and inspired local counsel to work with her to achieve the goals of the civil rights movement. As a leader and agent of change, she was committed to the cause of justice and she performed important work in the trenches in the South and behind the scene in courts that helped make the civil rights movement successful.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817319571
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 09/26/2017
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 1,081,787
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Gary L. Ford Jr. is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Lehman College. He has earned several degrees, including a BA in African American History from Harvard University, a JD from Columbia University, an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School, and a PhD in American Studies from the University of Maryland.

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Clarifying and Correcting the Narratives of the Civil Rights Movement

As the lead lawyer either at trial or on appeal in dozens of public school desegregation cases throughout the South, [Constance Baker] Motley enforced Brown directly, attacking all of the delaying tactics of southern school systems. She also sued to desegregate transportation facilities, public housing, hospitals, motels, restaurants, parks, pools, libraries, and even golf courses.

— Richard Blum, "Constance Juanita Baker Motley," The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives

A key strategist of the civil rights movement, Constance Baker Motley waged the battle for equality in the courtroom and, with quiet courage and remarkable skill, won landmark victories that dismantled segregation in America. As a dedicated public servant and distinguished judge, she has broken down political, social, and professional barriers, and her pursuit of equal justice under law has widened the circle of opportunity in America.

— President Bill Clinton, awarding of the Presidential Citizen Medal, 2001

On a sunny day in 1959, five years after the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, four lawyers — one of them an articulate, confident, well-dressed, and statuesque black woman — triumphantly walked out of the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. They had just won the case to desegregate public schools in Atlanta. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had filed the lawsuit on behalf of ten black parents in Atlanta a year earlier, in 1958. The parents were seeking admission of their children into the all-white Atlanta public schools. The separate all-black schools that their children attended were dilapidated and lacked books and other basic materials required to provide a quality education.

Judge Frank A. Hooper of the Georgia district court had issued the ruling declaring the racially segregated schools unconstitutional. He did not have the power to force integration, but he did have the power to order the schools to desegregate. Judge Hooper exercised that power and ordered Atlanta's school board to come up with a plan to end the dual system and to desegregate the schools.

Constance Baker Motley (1921–2005), the only female attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (known as the LDF) and the only woman who argued desegregation cases in court during most of the civil rights movement from 1946 to 1964, had the honor of being the lead counsel in the case. It was not her first significant legal victory. She was the legal strategist and trial counsel described as the LDF's "field general." By all accounts a gifted litigator, she was the person who was assigned and won many of the most difficult and important desegregation cases in the civil rights movement during the second half of the twentieth century.

The civil rights movement can be conceptualized as part of a movement for human rights and the struggle of disadvantaged and excluded groups against racism, sexism, and other inequalities as well as the struggle to attain social justice and inclusion in society. Other political and social movements — including the antiwar, feminist, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender), new immigrant, disability, environmental, and student movements — were inspired and galvanized by the black challenge to racism and discrimination. Susan Hartmann has argued that the black struggle for equality in the 1960s provided the model and inspiration for the other groups, which derived their ideologies, tactics, and legislative agenda from the civil rights example.

The civil rights movement was made up of many smaller movements and campaigns to end official racial segregation and discrimination. It was not confined to the South; campaigns were waged in the North, East, and Midwest and in major cities and small rural areas across the United States. When most people think about the civil rights movement, they think about the national aspect, but it was the local grassroots activity that served as the backbone of the movement.

The struggle for equality extended beyond a challenge to segregation. It also focused on the disparity in economic opportunities, consumer credit, welfare rights, health care, and all aspects of social and political activities. The social movement spread over more than two decades. Civil rights campaigns were continuous struggles that began before Brown and continued after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968.

Two of the more effective and complementary strategies employed by blacks in the civil rights movement were nonviolent protest and court action. Nonviolent protest involved the mobilization of blacks to participate in mass demonstrations to end official racial segregation and discrimination, achieve equality, and bring about social and political change. It was made up of many movements and grassroots campaigns. Recent feminist scholarly work demonstrates that although many of the movements and campaigns were primarily organized, led, and sustained by black female activists, charismatic men were given most of the credit for being the change agents and leaders of the civil rights movement.

Court action, the second strategy employed in the movement, involved a legal challenge to de jure segregation policies and practices — to dismantle Jim Crow and to overturn the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that sanctioned racial segregation in American society and mandated "separate but equal" public accommodations. Assistance in achieving the goals and objectives of the legal challenge came from the NAACP and its legal arm, the LDF. The organization used litigation to eradicate the Jim Crow system and to achieve social and political change.

The LDF led the battle in the courts and won crucial civil rights cases. It challenged segregation and inequality in education, public accommodations, transportation, employment, housing, and voting rights. Protest action and subsequent legal challenges led to social and political change achieved through court decisions in desegregation cases. A dynamic pairing, nonviolent protest and court action had a symbiotic relationship that was necessary for both to thrive and facilitate a successful end to the movement.

Often accompanied by local counsel, Motley was the LDF attorney who argued and won some of the most important desegregation cases. The winning of those cases was an integral part of the movement that produced a sea of change in both the law and public perception. In fact, much of the work to desegregate public schools, colleges, universities, housing, transportation, lunch counters, museums, libraries, parks, and other public accommodations was performed by Motley. It stands to reason that she would be famous for orchestrating that. However, that is simply not the case.

Despite her accomplishments, when the name Constance Baker Motley is mentioned, the response is often "Who was she?" or "What did she do?" Motley was a black woman, the daughter of immigrants from Nevis, British West Indies, a wife and a mother who became a pioneer and trailblazer in the legal profession. She broke down barriers, overcame sex discrimination, and operated outside the feminine role assigned to women by society and the civil rights movement. Her agency and action as a key strategist and trial lawyer affected the outcome of the movement. It facilitated the dismantling of Jim Crow and a segregated society.

Motley tried and won cases to end legalized segregation and vestiges of racial discrimination in the United States when neither the federal government nor state governments would do so. She used trial courts (and the appeal process) to integrate society and create integrated black and white public institutions and accommodations. She fought for dignity and equality under the law for all people. She was the trial or appellate counsel in fifty-seven cases in the US Supreme Court, eighty-two cases in federal courts of appeals, forty-eight cases in federal district courts, and numerous cases in state courts.

Motley argued ten major civil rights cases before the US Supreme Court and won nine of them, an impeccable record. In Hamilton v. State of Alabama, she protected the right of criminal defendants to have counsel in capital cases. She represented protesters who sat in at white-only restaurants and lunch counters. For instance, in Turner v. City of Memphis, the Supreme Court invalidated a regulation requiring racially segregated eating facilities and bathrooms in publicly operated facilities. In Gober v. City of Birmingham, Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham, Bouie v. City of Columbia, and Barr v. City of Columbia, other sit-in cases, she successfully challenged ordinances that required segregated seating in public eating places. Motley's victory in Lupper v. Arkansas was momentous. It led to the reversal of all the convictions that resulted from the sitins. In Watson v. City of Memphis, she obtained a ruling that required the immediate desegregation of municipal parks and recreational facilities. Her victory in Calhoun v. Latimer was significant in the desegregation of public schools in Atlanta. Swain v. Alabama was Motley's only loss in the US Supreme Court, and that was temporary. In that case she challenged an Alabama prosecutor's use of his peremptory challenges to remove all black candidates for jury duty. The court's decision upholding the prosecutor's use of peremptory challenges was reversed when the justices adopted her argument twenty years later in Batson v. Kentucky. That reversal gave her a flawless record in the highest court in the land.

For almost twenty years Motley left behind the comfort of her home and family in the North and traveled throughout the dangerous South to fight Jim Crow. She represented the freedom riders who were arrested and jailed when they rode across the country on buses to test the Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in interstate transportation. She protected the right of protesters to march, boycott, and demonstrate in other ways. She represented civil rights activists and forced their release when they were arrested and locked up in Southern jails. Motley secured the right for blacks to register to vote, to have free and fair access to the polling stations, and to have access to the political power structure in general. She protected the right of blacks to freely occupy vacant seats on buses and trains, to use bathroom facilities and drink from water fountains in bus terminals and train stations, to be served and eat at lunch counters and restaurants, to stay in hotels, and to go to parks, museums, and all places of public accommodations on an equal basis with whites.

Motley won cases against the states of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, New Jersey, and New York as well as the District of Columbia and secured the right for blacks to attend formerly all-white public schools, colleges, and universities, including the Universities of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida and Clemson College. She once argued four appeals in one day, a herculean task that speaks to her stamina and her resolve to be the agent of change in the South. Between May 20 and 27, 1963, she won the decision to integrate Memphis parks, got a court order to admit black students to the University of Alabama, and represented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and maintained support for him in the Birmingham campaign and for the civil rights movement when she secured a federal appellate ruling reinstating 1,081 Birmingham schoolchildren who had been expelled for demonstrating and marching with him. Motley also "forced the integration of public schools in New Rochelle," Hempstead, and Amityville, New York, and of public schools in Englewood, New Jersey, and central Virginia.

Like other black women who made important contributions to the civil rights movement, Motley had to confront racism, sexism, and other obstacles in her work in the South. On many occasions, for instance, to accomplish a task as simple as making a telephone call while she was conducting a trial, she had to find and use a pay telephone. The courthouse was usually located in the center of the Jim Crow zone. Black attorneys did not have offices near the courthouse, and white lawyers did not permit her to use a telephone in their offices. As a result, Motley often had to walk for many blocks before she crossed an invisible line that divided the black and white communities in order to find a telephone that she could use to call the court of appeals and arrange to appeal an adverse ruling. She had to do this in the case to desegregate the University of Georgia as well as in the Birmingham school case. This inconvenience was a constant reminder of the importance of her work in eliminating such insults toward blacks.

Motley had to endure the antics of hostile segregationist judges and lawyers in her work. She was disrespected by judges who turned their backs, faced the wall, and would not look at her when she argued her cases in front of them. She faced the prospect of violence and often "stayed in homes that had been bombed or were easy targets for attacks. ... Her host in Mississippi, the civil rights activist Medgar Evers, was murdered by a sniper" shortly after she stayed in his home. She frequently endured physical threats and encountered hostile mobs, hostile governors, and hostile school board officials. In Mississippi and Alabama, black men with guns surrounded the house she slept in to protect her.

Motley won long and hard-fought battles that led to the implementation of Brown and desegregation in the United States; however, Motley was marginalized in narratives about these battles and the civil rights movement. Much of the work that she and other black women performed in the civil rights movement was not fully documented. They did not receive proper recognition and credit from historians for their contributions to the movement's success. Historical narratives of the catalytic events that Motley and other women participated in do not fully examine the women's actions and agency.

Scholars who wrote the traditional male-centered narratives did not thoroughly examine Motley's life and experiences or include her in their accounts. Yet an abundance of scholarly literature has been written about well-known male lawyers involved in the civil rights movement. Their lives and experiences have been thoroughly examined. They have been credited for most of the legal victories secured and have been recorded as change agents and leaders in the traditional literature about the role of lawyers in the movement.

When historians wrote about the significant desegregation cases that Motley won, they focused primarily on her clients, many of whom became celebrated heroes (e.g., James Meredith and Martin Luther King Jr.). Her name was not properly linked to her victories in the legal challenge to segregation. She was not properly connected with all the campaigns in which she performed crucial legal services or with the clients she represented. She, like other black women in the struggle for equality, was relegated to the background while the well-known men in the narratives were placed in the spotlight.

For example, historians wrote about how brave James Meredith was for integrating the University of Mississippi, but they did not examine Motley's work and experiences in the courts and the constant trips — nearly two dozen — that she made to Mississippi to get him into the university. Meredith rightfully deserves credit for his bravery; however, the narrative is incomplete without an examination of the behind-the-scenes work that Motley performed and her bravery in the face of the emotional stress, social tension, and physical danger she had to overcome in order to win the case and then to actually get him enrolled as a student. Historians wrote about the desegregation of public schools and the desegregation of the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia, and other institutions that were forced to admit blacks after Motley won cases against them, but they failed to explore her role and experience in securing the victories. In addition, historians wrote extensively about the impact of marches and other forms of protest led by King and the direct action of students who participated in sit-ins and freedom rides, but these historians did not fully explore the work that Motley performed or examine how her actions facilitated the protests to such a degree that they would not have succeeded without her intervention. She went to court and made it possible for the protesters to go forward with their activities and be released from jail when they were arrested or incarcerated.


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Table of Contents


1. Clarifying and Correcting the Narratives of the Civil Rights Movement

2. Black Women: On the Front Lines but Not Properly Credited

3. Early Life and Preparation to Become a Leader

4. Work in the Trenches: The Case-by-Case Implementation of Brown v. Board of Education

5. Representing Protesters: Mass Demonstrations, Marches, Sit-Ins, and Freedom Rides

6. Desegregating America, Case by Case, in the Supreme Court

7. The Transition from Activist Movement Lawyer


Appendix: Constance Baker Motley’s NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Cases




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