Women have always played an essential role in shaping history. But their accomplishments are often ignored or erased. During Women’s History Month we celebrate the women whose courage and intellect have pushed our society towards a more equal union. From Constance Baker Motley, who co-wrote the argument in Brown v Board of Education, to Jean Fairfax, the founding Director of LDF’s Division of Legal Information and Community Services, our history was molded by the brilliance of female legal scholars, organizers, and activists.
One of twelve children and the daughter of immigrants, Constance Baker Motley rose to become the first Black woman to ever argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Civil Rights Movement’s successes were a result of the strength and sacrifice of thousands of women. In roles big and small, the victories of the movement belong to them as well. LDF’s founding team included many women whose accomplishments are central to our work today. After working with LDF founder Thurgood Marshall, Motley became LDF’s first female attorney and wrote the original complaint in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education.
Devoted to the cause of equal justice, 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.
Black families who spoke out against segregated schools were often the target of devastating economic reprisals. Jean Fairfax was on the ground to make sure that they would still be able to put food on the table. A largely unsung hero of the civil rights movement, Fairfax served as the Director of Community Services at LDF for decades, where she was instrumental in organizing Black families in school desegregation cases.
Fairfax drove LDF attorneys through rural Leake County, Mississippi to meet with parents as they faced the difficult decision of whether to send their children to potentially hostile white schools. Traveling to cotton fields by the light of kerosene lamps to talk with Black families about integration, she was intimately involved in the first desegregation of schools throughout Mississippi.
Coming of age in the Jim Crow South, Elaine Jones knew first-hand the precarious nature of Black freedom. After becoming the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law, she dedicated her career to civil rights. As an LDF lawyer, Jones was one of the first African-American women to defend death row inmates. Her trials were regularly picketed by the Ku Klux Klan, but Jones was undeterred.
In Furman v. Georgia, Jones successfully argued in the U.S. Supreme Court against the arbitrary application of the death penalty. Though the full moratorium on capital punishment was later overturned, it remains a landmark case for equal justice. In 1993, Jones became the first woman to serve as President and Director-Counsel of LDF. Her leadership saw the successful defense of affirmative action in Gratz v. Bollinger and the expansion of litigation to include healthcare and environmental justice.
Mary Hamilton, an activist and Freedom Rider, was arrested multiple times in the course of her organizing, but it was a court appearance in 1963 that would lead to a groundbreaking victory for African Americans. Hamilton worked with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) as one of only two female field secretaries for the organization, and the first sent to organize in the South. A remarkably effective community organizer, she was well known throughout the Movement for riding into small rural towns in the South and organizing non-violent protests. Called to testify as a witness in a case in Alabama, the prosecutor referred to Hamilton only by her first name, as was the custom when addressing African Americans in a courtroom. The honorifics of Mr., Miss, or Mrs. were reserved only for whites. Hamilton refused to respond to the prosecutor and stated that she would answer only when addressed respectfully. The judge found her in contempt of court, fined her $50, and sentenced her to five days in jail.
Represented by LDF attorneys, Hamilton’s case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor, in the 1964 landmark decision, Hamilton v. Alabama. The decision established that minority groups should be addressed with the same courtesies and honorifics as whites. While this story may not be well known today, Hamilton’s victory made headlines around the country and immediately put her shoulder-to-shoulder with other civil rights heroes of the era.
At the age of ten, Katherine Louise Carper became one of the youngest legends of the Civil Rights Movement. She and her mother were the first to sign onto the lawsuit that would eventually become Brown v. Board of Education. The segregated school system forced Katherine to make a harrowing trek to and from school each day, one that totaled over 8 hours. Braving rain, snow, and heat, Katherine had to walk through fields and down unpaved roads to get the bus to school.
For 40 years, a landfill in Dickson, Tennessee contaminated the Holt family well. By the time they were notified, it was too late for Sheila Holt-Orstead and her family. While white families in the area were notified of the potential dangers of toxins in the drinking water within 48 hours of Dickson officials becoming aware of the issue, affected black families weren’t notified until decades later. Due to the contaminated water, many family members became ill. Holt-Orstead successfully battled cancer, but lost her father to the disease in 2007. The Dickson landfill was located just 54 feet from the family’s property.
It was Holt-Orsted’s investigation on behalf of her family that uncovered the contamination of the well water. In litigation, LDF won more than $2 million for the Holt family from the city of Dickson and the state of Tennessee.