Civil Rights Pioneer Constance Baker Motley Dies

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Constance Baker Motley, a civil rights lawyer and the first black woman appointed to be a federal judge, died Wednesday in New York at age 84. Juan Williams remembers Motley.


One of the pioneers of the civil rights movement has died. Constance Baker Motley was a lawyer who later became the first African-American woman appointed to be a federal judge. She is perhaps best known for her work on Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation case. Here is Judge Motley in 2003 reflecting on the struggle for civil rights.

(Soundbite from 2003)

Judge CONSTANCE BAKER MOTLEY: Looking back 40 years, we can see the progress which has been made. I thought it would take much longer for us black Americans to arrive at the point that we are now; that is, where civil rights is not on the national agenda. You don't even hear the word anymore.

MONTAGNE: Constance Baker Motley speaking in an interview with NPR's Juan Williams. Juan joins me now to talk about her life.

Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You knew Judge Motley for many years. What are the high points of what was really quite an astonishing career?

WILLIAMS: Well, at a very young age, she helped to prepare a draft complaint that became the basis for the landmark Supreme Court desegregation case Brown vs. Board of Education. It's also the case then that she goes on to become a leading legal strategist for the civil rights movements, writing hundreds of court cases and briefs that helped to enforce the Brown decision around the country. So what you get is a woman who was involved in everything from breaking down segregation at the University of Alabama, University of Georgia, most famously in the case of the University of Mississippi, working with James Meridith so that he gets into the University of Mississippi. This is also a woman who then, after thousands of young black kids are expelled from public schools in Birmingham, Alabama--This is in the aftermath of demonstrations there for voting rights--helps to get those kids back into school. She's a woman who stood at the platform with Dr. Martin Luther King when he gave his 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech, because she had been his lawyer who helped to get him the right to demonstrate back in Albany, Georgia, way back. So this is a woman who was really at the forefront of the civil rights movement right now.

MONTAGNE: And how did a woman of her generation rise to become this leading civil rights attorney? I mean, a woman but also, you know, African-American?

WILLIAMS: Extraordinary story, wonderful biography. This is a woman from New Haven, Connecticut, parents from the West Indies. Nobody thought that she could become a lawyer. Her mother wanted her to become a hairdresser, but she nonetheless makes an impression on a white philanthropist in New Haven who pays for her to go on to college and then, of course, to Columbia Law School and, when she gets out of Columbia Law School, gets and internship at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund with Thurgood Marshall, who sends her south on the theory, she later said, that a lot of the Southern segregationists had had black nannies and so they would be absolutely surprised, taken aback, to see a black woman in the courtroom.

MONTAGNE: And, Juan, you've come to know over time many of the leaders of the civil rights movement who have either died or are quite elderly. Is the passing of Judge Motley also part of the passing of a generation?

WILLIAMS: I think it's really true, Renee, and so wise to make this point, because we still have with us people from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who are involved in the Brown case: Jack Greenberg, Robert Carter, Bill Coleman, but we've lost Thurgood Marshall, now Constance Baker Motley, Kenneth Clark; the psychologist who provided so much of the sociological basis for the case has died. Constance Baker Motley used to say that really Brown was the seed that led to the emergence of a black middle class in this generation in America today, and now we're on to a different level of civil rights issues having to do with affirmative action and the like. So I think we've seen the passing of a generation and the emergence of a new phase in terms of civil rights in America.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams, remembering civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley. She died yesterday in New York. She was 84.

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