Civil-Rights Lawyer Constance Baker Motley

A look back at the life of Constance Baker Motley, a prominent civil rights attorney and the first African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary. She died of congestive heart failure on Wednesday. She was 84 years old.

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ED GORDON, host:

Prominent civil rights attorney Constance Baker Motley died this week. Born in 1921, Motley was the ninth of 12 children of West Indian immigrants. Though poor, she excelled in school, so much so that she impressed a white philanthropist who paid for her college education. It was rare for a black woman in 1943 to earn a degree in economics, let alone from New York University. Motley then went on to law school at Columbia. That's where she met Thurgood Marshall, who gave her a job as a law clerk with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Marshall and Motley went on to collaborate on Brown vs. Board and several other landmark segregation cases. In the heat of the civil rights struggle, Motley agreed to represent James Meredith, who was seeking admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962. Motley recalled the case in a 2003 interview with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

(Soundbite of interview)

Judge CONSTANCE BAKER MOTLEY: We got a letter from him asking us to represent him. He had taken with Medgar Evers all of the steps that he had to take to apply. And he finally got a rejection, and he kept asking, `Why am I being rejected?' And I think they finally said, `Because we don't accept black students' or something. So once he had that, we filed the complaint.

GORDON: She one nine out of 10 civil rights cases she argued before the US Supreme Court and later pursued a short political career. In 1964, she became the first African-American woman elected to the New York state Senate. Two years later, Motley was appointed as a judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. NPR's Juan Williams remembers the legal trailblazer.

JUAN WILLIAMS: 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 onto 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.

GORDON: Judge Motley spent almost four decades on the federal bench. In addition to her numerous awards and contributions, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993. Civil rights pioneer Constance Baker Motley died of heart failure on Wednesday in New York. She was 84 years old.

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