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One On 1: Judge Constance Baker Motley, Civil Rights Pioneer

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1," with a profile of a New Yorker with a long and distinguished resume — current senior federal judge, former civil rights attorney, New York State Senator and Manhattan Borough President Constance Baker Motley.

As a young woman, Constance Baker Motley did a lot of traveling around this country, and wherever she went, she was rarely welcomed. That’s because Constance Baker Motley was a civil rights lawyer fighting discrimination inside the courthouse, and facing it outside the courthouse.

“Whenever we traveled in those days we couldn't stay in white hotels, somebody always had to put us up," she says.

The 82-year-old senior federal judge is traveling again, and is quite welcome this time. She's appearing at events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision which struck down racial segregation in schools.

Motley was one of the attorneys involved in the historic case.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s 50 years, because that means I'm 50 years older," she recently told students at Yale Law School. “The Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown case gave rise to the black middle class as we see it now in America.”

Motley was at Columbia Law School in the mid-1940’s when future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall hired her to work on the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She was the only woman on the staff.

“His mother was a school teacher and his father was a steward on a railroad car, so he knew that black women were often the one in the family who had an education,” she says. “So he didn't have any problem at all hiring me, but I'm sure nobody else would have hired me then."

Motley worked on several school-related cases that preceded Brown, including one that led to her first trip to the south, to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1949.

“They had never seen a woman attorney before,” she says. “Mississippi had never had a woman attorney at that point."

On the night of the Brown decision, May 17, 1954, Motley was at home with her husband and son in their Manhattan apartment.

"My son was 2-years-old, he's 52 now, and I remember going to his room and his crib and taking him up and telling him about it,” she says. “I don't know whether he understand anything at all, but I just felt that way, that he was going to live in a world which was different from the world I had grown up with.”

Motley tried many of the most important civil rights cases in the 50’s and 60’s. The stories behind these cases are contained in her 1998 autobiography, "Equal Justice Under Law."

Perhaps her most famous case came in 1962, when James Meredith wrote the NAACP for help in becoming the first black to attend the University of Mississippi.

“Thurgood came in with the letter and threw it on my desk and said, ÎThis guy's got to be crazy,’” she says.

Motley knew changes would not come quickly.

“I knew it would be a long struggle, as we all recognized, to get the south to desegregate the schools,” she says. “I think what we did was to underestimate the resistance.”

Judge Constance Baker Motley's journey to the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan began in New Haven, Connecticut, where her parents had immigrated after leaving the small Caribbean island of Nevis in the British West Indies.

“Their first good fortune was that they could speak the language, and they had education through the tenth-grade, which meant they could read and write,” she says. “So I had that good fortune of having parents who believed in education.”

She wanted to go to college, but paying for it was a problem. That’s until a wealthy white New Haven businessman, Clarence Blakesly, heard a speech Motley gave and offered to pay for her tuition.

"It made me realize that all whites were not racists, that some whites like Blakesly believed in aiding blacks to get an education," she says.

Her educational path eventually led her to Columbia Law School in the early 40’s, when World War II made it easier for women to gain admission.

“They were very happy to take in women because all of the men had been drafted,” she says.

Her time at Columbia would lead her to Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, and civil rights cases that would become part of American history. But in the mid-60’s, at the height of the civil rights era, Motley was persuaded to get into politics.

“I was relieved to be off the road,” she says. “Of course, that was an unexpected turn. I didn't know what politics held for me except that it turned out I was the first women to be a borough president, and being in the State Senate I was the only woman then."

For 15 years, Motley had battled state-sanctioned segregation in courts throughout the south. As a New Yorker, and then a public official here, she saw a different type of bias.

“You didn't have the power of the state and state officials involved. What you were up against was entrenched, private discrimination,” she says. “Harlem came into being because white real estate brokers wouldn't rent to blacks in certain areas - simple as that. When I first joined the bench, I was the only woman and the only black."

But after only two years in politics, Motley got the call from the White House nominating her for a federal judgeship.

“I flew here,” she says. “I realized that I wasn't particularly cut out for politics."

Judge Motley is best known for her civil rights work, but she was the judge in another historic legal battle; the case in 1978 that opened sports locker rooms to female sports reporters.

“I have never gotten that many letters on any case I had other than that, from men who really objected to that," she says.

Yet it is Brown vs. Board of Education and the other school-related civil rights cases for which Judge Motley will be best remembered, even if, as the judge believes, the cases are ancient history to young black students today.

“They just draw a blank when you talk about segregation,” she says. “It's not a part of their daily discussion.”

Judge Motley approaches discussion of the civil rights era as a lawyer, dissecting the various cases and legal issues. But she says much of the credit for the civil rights movement should go to black servicemen who returned from World War II and pushed to abolish segregation.

“They saw white German prisoners riding the front of the bus in their town down south, and they were still riding the back," she says.

Constance Baker Motley was there as history was made. She approached the cases, understandably, from a legal perspective, but for her the legal battles were personal.

“For those of us who were black, we knew it was a personal mission as opposed to just being a lawyer because we suffered the same discrimination as other black people,” she says. “We had to ride the back of the bus or the train.”

- Budd Mishkin

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