The Honorable Constance Baker Motley was the first African American woman to ever be appointed to the federal judiciary. She was born September 14, 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut to working class parents who were immigrants from the Caribbean Island Nevis. Baker Motley showed an affinity toward civil rights early on and became involved in community activism alongside her mother during her teenage years. After hearing her speak at a community event, local businessman and philanthropist Clarence W. Blakeslee offered to pay for her college education.
Baker Motley began college at Fisk University, but later transferred to and graduated from New York University. She earned her law degree from Columbia University School of Law in 1946. Early in her legal career, Baker Motley joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) as a civil rights lawyer, becoming the LDF’s first female attorney. She was the lead trial attorney in a number of early and significant civil rights cases, representing Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders, and the Birmingham Children Marchers. She was lead counsel and principal strategist on all of the LDF’s major school and lunch counter desegregation cases, including the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education. In 1962, she became the first African American woman ever to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court when she represented James Meredith in Meredith v. Fair. Because of her efforts, James Meredith became the first African American student to attend the University of Mississippi.
In 1964, Baker Motley became the first African American woman ever elected to the New York State Senate.
When Baker Motley was appointed to the federal judiciary in 1966, she became the first African American woman ever appointed to that bench. In 1982, she became the first woman and the first African American to serve as the Chief Judge for the Southern District of New York, the largest federal trial bench in the country. She assumed senior status on September 30, 1986. Her service terminated upon her death on September 28, 2005.
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