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Series II: Early Years, Family and Education
Series III: NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 1948-1991, bulk 1948-1964
Series VI: U.S. District Court Judgeship (Judicial Years), 1966-1995
Series VII: Speeches, 1963-2000
Series VIII: Publications, 1963-1996
Series X: Audio-Visual Materials, 1950s-2000s
At a Glance
Arranged in 12 series.
The bulk of the Motley papers document her professional life. The papers include correspondence, manuscripts, memoranda, speeches, interviews, photographs, audio cassettes, and memorabilia.
Using the Collection
Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Restrictions on Access
This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.
The Rare Book and Manuscript Library ia unable to allow patrons access to original recordings on audiocassettes, reel-to-reel tapes, film, analog records, and videotapes. If you need access to this type of material, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss the possibility of reproduction or reformatting.
Terms Governing Use and Reproduction
Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.
Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Constance Baker Motley Papers; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.
About the Finding Aid / Processing Information
Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Papers processed, 6/25/2012 by Ryan McComas
Papers revised, 2/15/2017 by Christopher M. Laico
2017-02-18 File created.
2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.
History / Biographical Note
Biographical / Historical
Constance Juanita Baker was born on September 14th, 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut. She was the ninth of twelve children of Rachel Huggins and Willoughby Alva Baker, both emigrants from Nevis, British West Indies. Her childhood neighborhood, although ethnically diverse (comprised of West Indian, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish families) was relatively free from racial rancor. Rachel Baker was a founder of the New Haven NAACP and Motley was exposed to African American history, especially the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, in her Sunday School. While in high school, Motley became president of the New Haven Youth Council and was secretary of the New Haven Adult Community Council. In 1939, she graduated with honors from Hillhouse High School. Though she had already formed a desire to practice law, Motley lacked the means to attend college, and instead went to work for the National Youth Administration. She also continued her involvement in community activities and it was through this work that she encountered local businessman and philanthropist Clarence Blakeslee, who, after hearing Motley speak at a New Haven community center, offered to pay for her education. She spent a year at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, then transferred to New York University in 1942, earning her A.B. in economics from its Washington Square College in 1943. In February 1944 she began her legal studies at Columbia Law School. She graduated in 1946, the same year she married Joel Wilson Motley, Jr., a real estate and insurance broker. Their son, Joel Motley III, was born in 1952.
In 1945 Constance Motley took a job as law clerk to Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDEF), and accompanied Marshall to court for most of his cases. After earning her law degree, Motley continued to work for the LDEF. In 1950 she was named assistant counsel and in 1961 she became associate counsel when Jack Greenberg succeeded Thurgood Marshall as head of the LDEF. As counsel Motley was involved in almost every important civil rights case of the era. She worked on litigation for the 1954 school desegregation case, Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and subsequently fought for and won several other successful public school and university desegregation cases, including James Meredith's entry into the University of Mississippi in 1962. The LDEF also represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers in civil rights campaigns for desegregation of public transportation and accommodations throughout the South from 1961 to 1963. Motley brought many of these civil rights cases to higher courts. Between 1961 and 1964, she argued ten civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning nine. [For a complete list and summaries of Motley's NAACP cases see the Columbia University project database, described in the Scope and Contents note]. In his book, Crusaders in the Courts (1994), Jack Greenberg said of Motley's work with the NAACP: "[She] was a dogged opponent of Southern segregationists, who found her tougher than Grant at Vicksburg. She dug in to a position and wouldn't let go in the face of all kinds of threats, evasion, obfuscation, and delay.".
In the late 1950s Motley had begun to be active in New York State politics. She served as a member of the New York State Advisory Council on Employment and Unemployment Insurance from 1958 to 1964, and in February 1964, she left the NAACP, having won a special election to the New York State Senate, becoming the first African American woman to serve in that body. As State Senator for the 21st Congressional District in Manhattan (roughly from 96th street on the upper west side to 161st street in Harlem), Motley launched a campaign during her first seven weeks in office to extend civil rights legislation in employment, education, and housing. She was re-elected to the Senate in November 1964 and served until February 1965, when New York City Council elected her the first woman to serve as President of the Borough of Manhattan. She was re-elected in the city-wide elections of November 1965 for a full four-year term and was the first candidate for the Manhattan Presidency to win the endorsement of the Republican, Democratic, and Liberal Parties. As Borough President, Motley drew up a seven-point program for the revitalization of Harlem and East Harlem, and won a pioneering fight for $700,000 to plan renewal projects for those and other underprivileged areas of the city. The plan included a design to decrease racial segregation in the public schools serving the housing projects.
In January 1966 Motley was nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson for a judgeship in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York--the nation's largest federal court covering Manhattan, the Bronx, and six New York counties. Over tremendous opposition from southern senators (led by Senator James Eastland of Mississippi) and other federal judges, Motley was confirmed in August 1966, becoming the first woman to occupy that post, and the first African American woman ever named to the federal bench. Judge Motley continued to be a strong supporter of civil rights for minorities and the poor, as well as for women's rights. Among her many controversial decisions was the infamous "locker room case" Ludtke v. Kuhn (1978), in which she ruled that a woman reporter be admitted to the New York Yankees' locker room. In another highly publicized case Judge Motley admonished the New York City police for not providing Vietnam war protesters with adequate protection against violence in the streets (Belknap et al v. Leary, 1970). [These and other notable cases presided over by Judge Motley are summarized in the Columbia University project which is described in the Scope and Content note below.] In 1982, Judge Motley was appointed Chief Judge of the Southern District of New York and held senior status since 1986. Constance Baker Motley died in New York City in September 2005.