Constance Baker Motley: A Forgotten Connecticut Icon

Mar 1, 2018

Chances are you’ve never heard of Constance Baker Motley.

Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Thurgood Marshall are all known for their historic work in the Civil Rights Movement, but Motley -- who was right there with them -- isn’t. 

Her career speaks for itself. She was the first black woman to become a federal judge. In the 1960s, she was a Civil Rights attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and she argued and won several key federal desegregation cases. She was even on stage with King when he delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. Yet, little has been written about the Civil Rights pioneer.

Gary Ford Jr., an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Lehman College, is now doing his part to put Motley back in the history books. On WNPR’s Where We Live, Ford spoke about his recent book, Constance Baker Motley: One Woman's Fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice Under Law. The two met when Ford was a child growing up in New Canaan, Conn., and he said she left him inspired. Ford spoke with Connecticut Public Radio’s Lucy Nalpathanchil about Motley’s role in American history.

She was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut
As one of 12 children, Motley was a daughter of immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Nevis. During the 1920s, New Haven was home to many West Indians. For Motley, that environment kept it free of racism. Ford said New Haven, “Provided a buffer for her and it allowed her to grow up not experiencing the biases that other people may have been experiencing in New Haven at the time.”

Motley was an attorney for Meredith v. Mississippi and Brown v. Board
As an attorney for two landmark desegregation cases, Motley described getting James Meredith, a black student, enrolled in the University of Mississippi as “the last battle of the Civil War.” He said Mississippi had the strictest form of segregation and white supremacy in the South. The verdict led to the Ole Miss riot of 1962. During Brown v. Board, the case that ruled segregated schools as unconstitutional, she served as an attorney and worked closely with another Civil Rights leader, Thurgood Marshall.

She got Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led a nonviolent protest in Birmingham, Alabama. Police used brutal force to disband the movement and they arrested thousands of protesters, including children and King. Motley was sent to the city to not only represent King but also the imprisoned children. She successfully got King out of jail and was able to get the children back to school as they faced expulsion.

Ford is working with Sen. Richard Blumenthal to get Motley more recognition in Connecticut
Ford has met with students and teachers at Hillhouse High School in New Haven -- the school Motley attended -- and beyond a photo of her in the library, there is no real monument to the Civil Rights leader at the school or anywhere in America. Ford says he’s in talks with the senator to achieve significant recognition for Motley.

“We have to do more to get her name out there,” Ford said. “All the people she represented have the Congressional Gold Medal, and yet, she does not.”

This is an edited interview from the February 27, 2018 episode of Where We Live. You can listen to the entire show right now. Where We Live airs every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 9:00 am and 7:00 pm.