On Aug. 30, 1966, civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley became the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge. President Lyndon Johnson appointed her a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, reportedly at the urging of then-Senator Robert Kennedy.
As federal judge, Motley’s many decisions included rulings on behalf of welfare recipients, low-income Medicaid patients and a prisoner who claimed to have been unconstitutionally punished by 372 days of solitary confinement, whom she awarded damages.
Previously, Motley worked with Thurgood Marshall as a law clerk at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, then served as principal legal counsel for the fund. She wrote the briefs presented to the Supreme Court for the plaintiffs in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case. She also directed the victorious legal campaign that led to the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962.
Motley also won legal cases that ended segregation in Memphis restaurants and at whites-only lunch counters in Birmingham, Ala. She fought for Dr. Martin Luther King’s right to march in Albany, Ga., and represented black students fighting for admission to the then whites-only Universities of Florida, Georgia and Alabama, and Clemson College in South Carolina.
In 1964 she was the first African American woman elected to the New York State Senate. She was also the first woman to serve as Manhattan borough president.
She was born in New Haven, Conn., in 1921 to parents who had immigrated from the Caribbean island of Nevis. She died in 2005 at age 84.
Her New York Times obituary notes that during the fiery days of the civil rights movement, “She visited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in jail, sang freedom songs in churches that had been bombed, and spent a night under armed guard with Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader who was later murdered.”
Photo: Constance Baker Motley with James Meredith, center, and her fellow NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Jack Greenberg. LaGuardia and Wagner Archives