“Constance Baker Motley: Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement”
Area residents may be familiar with Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)—a former civil rights attorney who had a seasonal home in Chester for forty years, and who was best known locally as the first African American woman appointed to the Federal bench. Now, with the publication of the first biography of her life, there is more to learn about Judge Motley that may surprise area residents and intrigue American history buffs.
On November 19, 2017, the Historical Society hosted a lecture and book signing by Dr. Gary Ford Jr, author of the new book, Constance Baker Motley: One Woman’s Fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice Under Law (University of Alabama Press). Dr. Ford, a professor of Africana Studies at CUNY’s Lehman College, with degrees from Harvard and Columbia Law School, will offer a treasure trove of exciting new facts, stories and unique insights into Motley’s unrecognized and under-represented contributions to the civil rights movement, and ultimately, her significance in American history.
According to Ford, Motley was a key strategist and brilliant courtroom litigator for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the only woman on its legal team. “As such,” said Ford, “she was the person most often sent to the South, and the one to argue the difficult and important desegregation cases involving public schools, colleges, universities, housing, transportation, lunch counters, libraries, parks and other places of public accommodation. Between 1944 and 1964, she litigated and won over 200 desegregation cases across 11 southern states at every court level, including the U.S. Supreme Court, where she became the first African American woman to argue a case.
“Winning those cases,” says Ford, “was an integral part of the civil rights movement. They legally ended Jim Crow in the South and produced a sea change in both the law and public perception, but went under-reported in the traditional narratives of civil rights history.”
Ford argues in his book that Motley’s quiet courtroom battles were essential to the success of street protests, sit-ins and marches because they turned those public campaigns for integration, equal rights and equal access, into codified American law. “This was Motley’s great, but little understood, contribution to American history,” said Ford.
Ford’s lecture in Chester, “Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement,” was followed by his book signing. His popular video on Motley—Justice Is a Black Woman—produced at Quinnipiac University in 2012, and shown on PBS, is part of the Motley exhibit currently on view at the Museum.
From the dust jacket of Ford’s new book: Ford’s well-researched book is more than a biography of Motley’s extraordinary life. It is an argument for recognizing the tenacious, courageous role African American women played in advancing the cause of civil rights and equal justice for all. To witness Judge Motley in action was to be fortified and astounded. Now, thanks to Ford, a new generation can bear witness to her immense talents. – Prof. Henry Lewis Gates, producer, PBS television series, Finding Your Roots