Black History Month 2012: Equality Under The Law Is Judge Motley's Legacy
The series "Freedom’s Voice: Legendary African-American Women" continues on NY1 with a look at Judge Constance Baker Motley, who started as a civil rights attorney and rose to unprecedented professional heights, forever changing the course of American history. Manhattan Borough reporter Rebecca Spitz filed the following report.
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While she may not be a household name, Constance Baker Motley changed American history. The civil rights attorney helped craft the legal arguments in Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's landmark decision which banned racial segregation in schools.
When the case was decided, Motley found her two-year-old son.
"I remember going to his room and his crib and taking him up and telling him about it. I don't know whether he understood anything at all but I just felt that way," Motley said in a 2004 interview with NY1.
Several years after Motley's death in 2005, her son Joel is making a documentary about her life.
"She knew that it would completely revolutionize the country and allow me to grow up in a world that she hadn't known," says Joel Motley.
When Constance Baker Motley went to Columbia Law School in the early 1940s, Thurgood Marshall, who eventually became the first African-American Supreme Court justice, hired her to work on the NAACP legal defense and educational fund, where she was the only woman on staff.
"She was certainly gracious. She was somebody who had a wry sense of humor and she remained steadfast to her commitment to racial and social justice issues," says Theodore Shaw, the former director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
At the height of the civil rights movement, Motley briefly left law for politics.
"It turned out I was the first woman to be a borough president and being in the State Senate, I was the only woman then," Motley said in her 2004 interview.
She was also the first African-American woman on the federal bench.
"I remember once we were late getting to the courthouse, I got out of the car and said 'Come on, come on mom, you're going to be late.' And she said, 'They can't start 'til I get there," says Joel Motley.
His mother's legacy, Joel Motley says, can be found in the title of her autobiography, "Equal Justice Under Law."
"She really stood for the notion that the law in American society could be used to right injustice on a massive scale and to make it a more perfect union," he says.
Joel Motley says he is proud generations of lawyers are walking in Judge Constance Baker Motley's shoes.