Freedom’s Sisters: Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley (1921 – 2005) was a lawyer who played a key role in the civil rights movement in the United States.  I admire her for being so outraged at age 15, upon being denied access to a public beach because of her race, that she vowed to become a lawyer and change things.  And she did.  Even though she came from a large family that couldn’t afford to send her to college.  Even though, as she said, “No one thought this was a good idea.”  Even though she was working as a maid.  She gave a speech at a local community center that so impressed a businessman that he funded her college education.  See?  Never give up.  Never think something is impossible.  If you really want to succeed, you can.

Motley was a smart and courageous woman.  She ended up working for Thurgood Marshall, of the Supremes (Court, that is) while he was at the NAACP, working on cases like school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education.  She was also integral to the case of James Meredith’s admission to the segregated University of Mississippi.  She won.  Marshall sent her on many trips to the not particularly friendly atmosphere in Mississippi, saying that a black woman was safer there than a black man.  She didn’t flinch.  She did well in the courtroom, too.  She was famous for leading witnesses in a trial down the garden path, letting them think they were fooling her, and then zeroing in and exposing them.  I love it!

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from Constance Baker Motley:

“I grew up in a house where nobody had to tell me to go to school every day and do my homework.”

“I rejected the notion that my race or sex would bar my success in life.”

There’s a brief bio at her alma mater, Columbia University, and here’s her autobiography:  EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).  Great account of a fascinating woman.





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5 responses to “Freedom’s Sisters: Constance Baker Motley

  1. Suzy

    I just received a picture book from a Canadian publisher for older elementary children called Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged, a true story about a black woman in Nova Scotia in 1946 who refused to give up her seat in a movie theater. I have never thought about the struggle for civil rights occurring simultaneously across the Canadian border. Very cool book.

  2. Very interesting — thanks for letting us know!

  3. thanks for this post. we are linking to it in the next “Talking Story” newsletter! and I want to read this book. so many books to read, so little time…

  4. Ari

    I love Constance Baker Motley and I wish there were more books about her! My library doesn’t have her authobiography so I’m going to have to buy it. Thank you also for letting me know about Freedom’s Sisters 🙂

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