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A Look at the Life of Civil Rights Lawyer Baker-Motley
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A Look at the Life of Civil Rights Lawyer Baker-Motley


A Look at the Life of Civil Rights Lawyer Baker-Motley
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We learned today of the death of Constance Baker Motley, a judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, and the first African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary. Judge Brown was the only woman on the team that argued Brown vs. Board of Education, the case that ended the segregation of public schools in America. She was a key figure in many of the major legal battles of the civil rights era, winning nine of 10 civil rights cases she argued before the US Supreme Court. She died Wednesday in New York. Theodore Shaw is president and director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He joins me now on the phone from Boston.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. THEODORE SHAW (NAACP Legal Defense Fund): Thank you.

NEARY: Let's just--Constance Baker Motley first got interested in the civil rights movement because of her own personal experience with discrimination. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Mr. SHAW: Well, Judge Motley grew up in New Haven, and she went to college because she was funded by a wealthy white philanthropist in New Haven and she went down to Nashville to go to Fisk University, and that was her first experience in the South and, of course, she endured segregation as all African-Americans did at the time. She finished her education at NYU as an undergraduate and then went on to Columbia Law School, and then by that time she volunteered and worked at the NAACP with the defense fund for Thurgood Marshall and eventually became a staff lawyer and worked on the initial complaint that led to the Brown cases.

NEARY: What was her involvement with the case?

Mr. SHAW: Well, she was, as you indicated, the only woman on the legal defense fund staff at the time, but she was also just absolutely brilliant, and while she did not argue one of the lower cases in the Supreme Court--Jack Greenberg did, of course, and Bob Carter and, of course, Thurgood Marshall--but she did, in fact, work on those cases in briefing and preparation and was a key part of the Brown cases. In the 1960s, she argued 10 cases before the Supreme Court, some of them the most important Supreme Court civil rights cases of her time.

NEARY: What were some of those? Can you give us some examples?

Mr. SHAW: She represented James Meredith in the University of Mississippi case; the University of Georgia, Charlene Hunter-Gault and another plaintiff, Hamilton Holmes--she represented them. She helped to represent Arthurine Lucy in the desegregation of the University of Alabama. So those were three major higher education desegregation cases. And then in the elementary and the secondary schools, there were 1,000 black students who were kicked out of schools because they demonstrated in the civil rights movement, and she was engaged in representing them and got them all readmitted, and she said that was the most enduring accomplishment of her legal career.

NEARY: She was also the first black woman appointed to the federal bench. What kind of judge was she?

Mr. SHAW: Judge Constance Baker Motley was tremendous as a federal judge. She rose to be chief justice in 1982 of the federal district court for the Southern District of New York. She was a very stern, no-nonsense but fair judge, and had a very highly attuned sense of justice. She was someone who I would not describe as gentle. I mean, she was tough but in the best way, so she really was a great, great judge.

NEARY: Everything I've read about her describes her as a real optimist, a person who just wouldn't accept the idea of defeat. And when you realize that she became a lawyer at a time when neither blacks nor women were--you didn't see many of them in law schools, I guess you have to say that must have been the key to her success, that sense that nobody could say no to her.

Mr. SHAW: Well, I think that she was somebody who was difficult to say no to. I know she was. You know, she was a lawyer, as you said, at the time when the civil rights movement itself was dominated by males, you know, and she was a lawyer at a time when many people in Southern states had never saw a black lawyer come in the court. In part of the South they called her that Motley woman. They referred to her that way. But as a judge, you know, she came with all of that to the bench and had a long--she had two careers; she had a career as a civil rights lawyer and as a judge--she had three careers, 'cause she was also an elected official in the New York state Senate and the first woman to be Manhattan borough president. So she had a tremendous, long and productive life.

NEARY: All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us today...

Mr. SHAW: Thank you.

NEARY: ...Mr. Shaw. Theodore Shaw is president and director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He joined us by phone from Boston.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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