by Fern E. Gillespie
Standing on each side of President Biden when he announced his nomination for US Supreme Court Justice were two Black women at the top echelon of American political power. Flanking the President of the United States were nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and Vice President Kamala Harris. It was a commanding image.
When Judge Jackson accepted the nomination, she spoke about a woman that not only inspired her legal career, but extraordinarily shared her birthday. She gave tribute to New York’s legendary political powerhouse Judge Constance Baker Motley. It was a true “Black Lady Magic” moment.
“Today, I proudly stand on Judge Motley’s shoulders sharing not only her birthday but also her steadfast and courageous commitment to equal justice under the law,” Jackson said during the formal White House announcement of her nomination.
Motley was born in 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut, the ninth of 12 children born to parents who were Caribbean immigrants from Nevis. Her mother was a community activist and founded the New Haven NAACP. Motley graduated from New York University in 1943 and after earning her law degree from Columbia University in 1946, she became the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund’s (LDF) first female attorney. Motley became renowned as a chief courtroom strategist of the civil rights movement. She wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education with Thurgood Marshall and served with him at the LDF as a legal advocate for civil rights for over two decades. In addition, Motley pioneered the legal campaigns for several seminal school desegregation cases, defended Martin Luther King, Jr.’s right to march in Albany, Georgia and did litigation that ended segregation in Memphis restaurants and whites-only lunch counters in Birmingham, Alabama.
Boldly, Motley was a woman of many firsts. Motley was the first Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court and went on to win nine out of ten cases. She was the first Black woman to serve in the New York State Senate, the first Black woman in history to serve as a federal judge. In 1965, she became first woman and first African American to be the Manhattan Borough President. From 1986, served on the bench with distinction for nearly two decades. Constance Baker Motley passed away at the age of 84 on September 28, 2005.
In 2013, Congressional leaders introduced legislation posthumously awarding her the Congressional Gold Medal. Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and John Lewis (D-GA) led 13 of their colleagues in introducing the bill.
“Constance Baker Motley was a legal giant. As a lawyer, she fought tirelessly for the cause of civil rights,” wrote Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel, a longtime friend and colleague. “In all of these roles, she never stopped working to help those most in need and ensure equal rights for all. I personally know the impact of her dedication, since as Manhattan Borough President she secured funds to help revitalize Harlem.
Throughout her entire life, Constance was a groundbreaking woman. Her efforts to advance the cause of civil rights continue to benefit all Americans. Her impact on our history is without question. It was her wish that her work as a judge leave the world a better place, and there is no doubt she succeeded.”