Constance Baker Motley papers
Scope and Contents
The bulk of the papers date from 1964 to 1966 and focus on Motley's tenures as New York State Senator, President of the Borough of Manhattan, and her early years as a Judge in one of the busiest federal district courts in the country. Major topics found throughout these papers include the civil rights movement in the South; racism and discrimination in the U.S; equal opportunities for African Americans in employment, housing, and education; urban renewal in New York City, particularly Harlem; community activism and neighborhood development; New York (State and City) politics; women in the legal profession and politics; and modern judicial history. The papers are equally rich as a record of the public life and career of a pioneering African American woman in her ascent to national prominence often in the face of strong prejudice.
Correspondence comprises roughly half of the collection. Included are exchanges with constituents and other concerned citizens relating to legislation before Motley as State Senator; a myriad of political and social issues she faced as Manhattan Borough President; and cases she presided over as Justice in the Southern District Court of New York. These letters, both supportive and negative, illustrate the turbulent social and political atmosphere of New York City in the mid-1960s. Certain letters from detractors offer evidence of the sometimes quite virulent public sentiment Motley faced in challenging racism and discrimination.
Notable correspondents include: Bella Abzug, Brooke Astor, Shirley Chisholm, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson, Florynce Kennedy, Dorothy Kenyon, Martin Luther King, Jr., John V. Lindsay, George McGovern, Floyd B. McKissick, James and Mary June Meredith, Pauli Murray, A. Philip Randolph, and Robert F. Wagner. Cross-references in the folder list and the Name Index at the end of this document refer researchers to material on individuals found in series other than Correspondence. The Constance Royster portion of the collection contains more materials from Baker Motley's early and personal life, including photos, issues of The Connecticut Negro Register (for which she was a young "local correspondent"), her twin sister's high school yearbook and reunion materials, and an album from a wedding at which she was a witness. It also includes press on her from before and after her death, memorial materials, and materials from the publication of her book Equal Justice Under Law.
Researchers may also wish to consult two databases which were created through a project at Columbia University Law School in 1995. The first is a database of the Constance Baker Motley papers available in the Sophia Smith Collection and elsewhere. The other is a database of summaries of important NAACP cases in which Motley was counsel. In addition there are text files consisting of a list and case summaries of significant NAACP cases as well as cases Motley tried as a Federal judge. Copies of the databases and text files are all available in electronic form on the SSC computer network. A complete description of the project, the databases, and printouts of some of the text files are filed in box 15 of this collection. Consult the Reference staff for more information on how to access the electronic resources.
Dates of Materials
- Motley, Constance Baker (Person)
Conditions Governing Access
Conditions Governing Access
Conditions Governing Use
Biographical / Historical
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.
For additional biographical information, see Equal Justice-Under Law: An Autobiography by Constance Baker Motley (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).
0.004 Gigabytes (114 files)
10.247 linear feet (25 boxes and 1 flat file folder)
Language of Materials
- I. Biographical Material
- II. Correspondence
- III. Professional Activities
- IV. Speeches
- Ford Foundation Grant Project, Columbia University Law School
- Oversize Materials
- Joel Motley collection of Constance Baker Motley papers
- Constance Royster collection of Constance Baker Motley material
Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Accession 2019-S-0047 was added to the finding aid by Althea Topek in 2020.
- Abzug, Bella S., 1920-
- African American women -- Political activity
- African American women judges
- African American women lawyers
- African Americans -- Civil rights
- African Americans -- New York (N.Y.) -- 20th century
- Astor, Brooke--Correspondence
- Bills (Legislative records)
- Chisholm, Shirley, 1924- --Correspondence
- Civil rights movements -- United States -- 20th century
- Community development, Urban -- New York (N.Y.) -- 20th century
- Greenberg, Jack, 1924-
- Harlem (New York, N.Y.) -- 20th century
- Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973
- Kennedy, Florynce, 1916- --Correspondence
- Kenyon, Dorothy, 1888-1972--Correspondence
- King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968
- Lindsay, John V. (John Vliet)
- Marshall, Thurgood, 1908-1993
- McGovern, George S. (George Stanley), 1922- --Correspondence
- McKissick, Floyd B. (Floyd Baxter), 1922- --Correspondence
- Meredith, James
- Motley, Constance Baker
- NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
- New York (N.Y.) -- Race relations -- 20th century
- Oral histories
- Race discrimination -- Law and legislation -- United States
- Randolph, A. Philip (Asa Philip), 1889-
- School integration -- United States
- United States -- Politics and government
- Women judges -- United States
- Women, Black
- press releases
- Finding Aid to the Constance Baker Motley papers
- Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
- Margaret Jessup, Madison White, and Isabel Montesanto
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Processing funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
- 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (https://github.com/harvard-library/archivesspace-preprocessor)
- 2005-09-23: mnsss51 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
- 2017-07-26T17:48:21-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
- 2018-10-31: Digital object record and description added for Ford Foundation database and related files
- 2019-04-10: Updated to include new accession
- 2020-10-15: Added new file to include Accession 2019-S-0046
Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository
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