In Their Words

Women of LDF on Constance Baker Motley's Enduring Legacy

By Sarah Friedman

Director of Original Content and Editor in Chief

Through her storied career, Constance Baker Motley left an indelible mark, advancing civil rights in the United States, improving countless lives through her work on desegregation and equity — and breaking numerous professional barriers in the process. Motley was the first Black woman to be elected to the New York State Senate, serve as President of the Borough of Manhattan, be appointed to a federal judgeship, and act as Chief Judge for the Southern District of New York. Her impact is still felt throughout the country today, as her unrelenting work dismantled hurdles to educational, employment, and socioeconomic equality for Black people. This paved the way for future generations to more fully realize their civil rights, unencumbered by racial discrimination.

While Motley’s work made her a national public figure, her legacy is also deeply woven into the fabric of the Legal Defense Fund (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.

Indeed, in 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, Motley’s impact reverberates profoundly.

In honor of Motley’s myriad contributions, LDF women attorneys and future litigators took a moment to share how she has inspired them in their professional paths, approach to civil rights work, and future aspirations — highlighting just how powerfully Motley’s presence is still felt decades after she completed her LDF tenure.

I am a civil rights and racial justice advocate because people before me — from my family members to people who never knew me, like Constance Baker Motley — believed our world must be a fair and joyous one for Black people and other systemically harmed groups. And then they worked for that reality. Knowing that history and sacrifice compels me to engage, as Constance Baker Motley did, in the work of achieving justice and opportunity for Black people. I also am a Black woman lawyer because legal luminaries like her not only showed me that I could be one, but also opened doors inside and outside of LDF to make it possible for me. From her groundbreaking work ensuring educational opportunity for Black children and families, to her breaking down the doors to become a member of the federal judiciary, Constance Baker Motley shows us what’s possible.

- Leah C. Aden, Deputy Director of Litigation

As a Black woman practicing civil rights law, born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in North Carolina, it is no exaggeration to say that without the brave example of Constance Baker Motley my story is impossible. On her 100th birthday, I celebrate Motley for the brilliance and fortitude that carried her advocacy from putrid prisons in Georgia all the way to the Supreme Court.

- Amber M. Koonce, Fried Frank Fellow

Elected Official.

Motley with Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Kuntsler.

Learn more about Constance Baker Motley’s life and career here.

Motley with Derrick Bell in LDF's library.

"Constance Baker Motley was a trailblazer in all aspects of the legal profession. She embodied the highest standards for excellence as an advocate and as a judge. But her work opened doors far beyond the law — she led campaigns that created access for people of color and women through the entire pipeline of American education, from K-12 schools to the university setting. In short, her dedication and tireless work impact what courtrooms and classrooms look like for all of us today. And, as an LDF attorney, I seek to exemplify her excellence and unwavering tenacity when carrying out my own educational equity work."

- Cara McClellan, 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

Learn more about Constance Baker Motley’s life and career here.

"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 an LDF lawyer, I am always reminded of the giants in whose footsteps I walk. For me, chief among those is the trailblazing civil rights advocate and jurist Constance Baker Motley. Her life and career are a true testament to the power of law to transform lives. I can only hope to have a fraction of the impact that Judge Motley did during her time at LDF and after. Her enduring example truly serves as a guiding light for so many of us working to advance racial justice and equality in the United States.”

- Rachel Kleinman, Senior Counsel and Director of Professional Development