All Rise, The Judge Is In Town - Constance Baker Motley

By Marta Daniels

(Note: Judge Motley is a major feature of our 2017 exhibit, "Chester Postcards & Three Chester Notables.")

For over 40 years Chester was home to a legendary woman whose courage, integrity and distinguished legal career shaped American history in civil rights, women’s rights and American jurisprudence.

Between 1965 and 2005, Judge Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005) spent weekends, holidays and summers in an old home on Cedar Lake Road where she traveled from NYC for the quiet and peace of rural Chester, CT. She entertained family and friends, along with courtroom colleagues there, using her home to rest and recharge her spirit.

Constance Baker Motley and husband Joel seated far right on log, clearing a fallen tree from their Chester land off Cedar Lake Rd. At left (standing) is Tom Stieger, Dan Agnelli, and David Green, husband of Constance Motley’s sister Marion Baker Green (seated left), beside Pat Stieger (Tom's wife) and unidentified woman. Circa 1975.  

Constance Baker Motley and husband Joel seated far right on log, clearing a fallen tree from their Chester land off Cedar Lake Rd. At left (standing) is Tom Stieger, Dan Agnelli, and David Green, husband of Constance Motley’s sister Marion Baker Green (seated left), beside Pat Stieger (Tom's wife) and unidentified woman. Circa 1975.  

While she lived in Chester, she received the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, was inducted into the National and State Women’s Hall of Fame, had her legal work praised by U.S. Supreme Court Justices, three Presidents and the Federal Courts. The road to such acclaim was long and dangerous, but was made bearable by the loving support of her husband Joel W. Motley Jr, and her son, Joel III, who believed in her.

First 20 Years with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund
Before arriving in Chester in 1965, Motley spent 20 tumultuous years in the South as an NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney (1944-1964) who worked beside Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King. She became the primary figure in the integration of southern schools after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs Board of Education, that ruled “separate but equal” unconstitutional. 

James Meredith and NAACP Attorney Motley being picketed at the Federal Courthouse in Louisiana in the desegregation case at the University of Mississippi; Medgar Evers, Civil Rights leader, is behind Meredith. 1962 Martin Luther King with his wife Coretta (l) and Constance Baker Motley at SCLC Convention honoring Rosa Parks, 1965

James Meredith and NAACP Attorney Motley being picketed at the Federal Courthouse in Louisiana in the desegregation case at the University of Mississippi; Medgar Evers, Civil Rights leader, is behind Meredith. 1962
Martin Luther King with his wife Coretta (l) and Constance Baker Motley at SCLC Convention honoring Rosa Parks, 1965

Not only did she write the first legal brief in Brown, she was the “face in the southern courtroom,” litigating most challenges, and eventually winning them all—from the 1957 Arkansas “Little Rock Nine” to James Meredith’s famous admission to the University of Mississippi in Sept. 1962.

A leading attorney for Dr. Martin Luther King after 1962, Motley was jailed with him, sang with him, and helped him desegregate the buses and lunch counters of the South—he in the streets, she in the courts. Her NAACP work also took her to the U.S. Supreme Court ten times, where, as the first African American woman to argue before the highest Court, she won all ten of her cases.

Martin Luther King with his wife Coretta (left) and Constance Baker Motley atSCLC Convention honoring Rosa Parks, 1965 (AP photo)

Martin Luther King with his wife Coretta (left) and Constance Baker Motley atSCLC Convention honoring Rosa Parks, 1965 (AP photo)

Though in constant physical danger, she persisted in the South for two decades. It was the 1963 fire-bombing deaths of four little black girls in a Birmingham church, and the Klan assassination of her close friend and civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, in Jackson, Mississippi—and in whose home her own 11-year-old son Joel had stayed—that caused her to end her Southern NAACP Legal Defense Fund work.

A Second Career and a House in Chester, CT
By 1965, she stopped traveling, bought her “weekend” house in Chester, and embarked on a new (though short) career as a NY politician. She became NY’s first black woman State Senator, then the first black woman President of the Manhattan Borough Council, overseeing the welfare of 2 million New Yorkers, and Harlem’s economic revitalization. By 1966, President Johnson appointed her to the Federal District Court in NY, the first black woman ever to hold that position. By 1988 she became its Chief Judge, also a first.

For 40 years Judge Motley and her beloved husband, Joel W. Motley Jr., spent nearly every weekend at their Chester home—gardening, fishing and hosting family gatherings (Motley was born in nearby New Haven, and had 11 siblings). Often, son Joel III would join them. The Judge was also fond of adjourning her courtroom staff in NY to her “Chester Chambers” for legal discussions.

Chesterites can still remember Motley’s dinner parties, for which she liked to cook. She would invite court clerks (she had 80 in her 39 years on the federal bench) and famous civil rights activists (like Henry Lewis Gates), along with locals. “Integrity was her middle name,” remembers Barbara Delaney, a Chester resident, and her close friend for 40 years. “We always enjoyed our dinners with the Motleys.”

Judge Motley was a lifelong member of the Chester Historical Society, as is her son Joel III. Her outstanding history of her 1745 “Bushnell House” on Cedar Lake Rd. (pictured below, 1984) is available at the Chester Historical Society.