Motley with LDF founder Thurgood Marshall and former LDF Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg.

One of LDF’s first female attorneys, Constance Baker Motley wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education and pioneered the legal campaigns for several seminal school desegregation cases. She was the first Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court and went on to win nine out of ten cases.

Motley became the first Black woman to serve in the New York State Senate and the first woman to serve as Manhattan Borough President. When President Johnson appointed her to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, she became the first Black woman to sit as a federal judge.

The Life and Legacy of Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley was born on September 14, 1921, in New Haven, Connecticut. She was the ninth of 12 children born to Rachel Huggins and McCullough Alva Baker, immigrants from the Caribbean island Nevis. Her mother was a community activist and founded the New Haven NAACP. Motley graduated from New York University in 1943 and attended Columbia Law School. She began her career at LDF in 1945 as a law clerk and was promoted to assistant special counsel in 1949. LDF’s second female (and first Black female) attorney, Motley rose to prominence Motley rose to prominence as the chief courtroom strategist of the civil rights movement. In addition to successfully litigating cases that ended segregation in Memphis restaurants and at whites-only lunch counters in Birmingham, Alabama, Motley defended Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s right to march in Albany, Georgia.


Motley was a key architect in the fight for desegregation in the South. From 1945 to 1964, Motley worked on all of the major school desegregation cases brought by LDF. She led the litigation of the case that integrated the University of Georgia and directed the legal campaign that resulted in the admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962, paving the way for the integration of universities across the south. 

Motley claimed her greatest professional achievement was the reinstatement of 1,100 Black children in Birmingham who had been expelled for taking part in street demonstrations in the spring of 1963. Motley faced the danger of her work head-on — from driving through Ku Klux Klan territory to defend the right of Black students to attend the University of Georgia to spending hours in county jails across the deep South helping to secure the release of detained civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Motley leaving court with James Meredith. Motley led the legal campaign that resulted in Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi.
LDF honored the legacy of Constance Baker Motley in a September 14, 2021 event — the 100th anniversary of her birth. The commemoration included remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, son Joel Motley, and a panel featuring Harvard University Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, historian and professor Martha S. Jones, JD, PhD, and Estée Lauder Vice Chairman Sara Moss.

This year, LDF launched its groundbreaking Marshall-Motley Scholars Program named after Constance Baker Motley and LDF founder Thurgood Marshall. The MMSP supports and develops the next wave of civil rights lawyers in the South, where the majority of Black Americans live. Over the next five years, LDF will invest in the establishment of a corps of 50 civil rights attorneys equipped and prepared to advocate on behalf of Black communities in the South seeking racial justice and equity. 

While Motley’s work made her a national public figure, her legacy is also deeply woven into the fabric of LDF, where she worked for over 20 years. As a Black women-led national civil rights law organization, LDF continues to serve as a trailblazer in the ongoing fight to protect civil rights and advance racial justice and equality. For the individuals who carry out this work, Motley’s enduring legacy and example resonate deeply, especially for the women of LDF.

In celebrating and reflecting on her life, it is clear how powerfully Motley lives on — from the trailblazing women of LDF who have been strengthened by her example as they carve their own unique paths and make their own contributions to history — to the generations of Black people in the United States whose lives she impacted through her courage, determination, and transformative civil rights work.

"Constance Baker Motley’s breadth and depth of public service transcended all the norms that were — and in some ways still are — expected of those of us who exist at the intersection of Blackness and womanhood. What’s most inspiring is the level of excellence with which she served. She never just went through the motions or assumed new roles just to become ‘the first’ to undertake them. There was a profound intentionality and a commitment to justice that Constance Baker Motley consistently demonstrated in what she did and how she did it — from the halls of LDF, to the New York State Senate chamber, to the federal bench. As I chart my own professional path, I look to hers not only for inspiration but also for instruction."

- Kristen A. Johnson, Assistant Counsel

“As a woman of color, I am inspired by Judge Constance Baker Motley’s triumph as one of our greatest lawyers amid the racism and sexism of her day. And, as an LDF litigator following in her footsteps, I look to her as a model on how to provide excellence to our clients — who deserve no less — and bring to fruition a more fair, just, and equitable society.”

- Jin Hee Lee, Senior Deputy Director of Litigation and Director of Strategic Initiatives