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The Lives They Lived; Pride and Prejudice
The New York Times Magazine
December 25, 2005, Sunday

Original version:

In February 1941, Constance Baker, age 20, a bright and ambitious young woman from New Haven, Connecticut, left home for college. She was slender and stylish, wearing a belted wool overcoat with a fur collar and black leather gloves. Her dark wavy hair fell from under a slanted wide-brimmed hat. She’d found a hometown mentor, 77-year-old white philanthropist Clarence Blakeslee, who had heard her speak up at a community meeting and subsequently offered to fund her tuition. Despite the fact that women lawyers were rare creatures, and black women lawyers almost unheard of, Constance Baker had set her sights on law school and Blakeslee had agreed to invest in her. On that February day, strikingly attractive and full of promise, she toted her suitcase on the trains from New Haven to New York and from New York to Cincinnati. In Cincinnati, she disembarked briefly and watched as an older and dirtier passenger car was towed from a side-yard and inserted into the train. When she tried to return to her seat for the journey across Kentucky to Nashville, Tennessee, home of Fisk University, the porter blocked her. “You have to go in this car,” he said, directing her to the filthy one. Then she saw the “Colored” sign.

“Although I had known this would happen, I was both frightened and humiliated,” she would write in her autobiography 57 years later, by which time she had become one of the most famous lawyers – one of the most famous women -- in America: she had worked with Thurgood Marshall on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team which overturned school segregation; she had been James Meredith’s chief counsel in his battle for admission to the University of Mississippi; she had argued ten cases before the U.S. Supreme Court (and won nine of them); she was the first African-American woman elected to the New York State Senate and the first woman to serve in the powerful position of Manhattan borough president; and, in 1966, nominated by Senator Robert F. Kennedy and appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, she had become the first African-American woman to serve on the federal judiciary. Promoted to Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1982, she became the first African-American and the first woman to assume that position.

Of her appalling day in Cincinnati, she wrote that, having grown up in Connecticut, “I did not know the extent to which segregation affected the daily lives and freedom of movement of all black people south of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

“Yeah, well…and she stole the Colored sign out of that train car,” says her only child, Joel Wilson Motley III, a New York investment banker. “She wanted to show it to her parents, a bit of evidence of what was happening in the country. My grandparents were shocked – they weren’t surprised by the sign, they knew about the signs; they were shocked by my mother’s audacity in stealing it.”

The Colored sign was the first of a great many badges of segregation removed by Constance Baker Motley.

“Of course she was very young, and it was a more impulsive act of civil disobedience than she would display as an adult,” says Joel Motley. “But segregation was heinous and there was nothing about it, from the first moment, that cowed or intimidated her.” She knew instinctively that the Colored sign was not worth her respect.

“Connie” Baker had grown up in the stately and integrated world of New Haven, a star student in white schools in which she was one of very few black children. “We seemed to have no more and no less than everyone else,” she would write in her autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law. “The grammar school was two short blocks away… There was beautiful Edgewood Park with a playground nearby. There were two beaches…Fear and racial conflict were simply not a part of the landscape.”

Both her mother and father were immigrants from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean and their friends were other West Indians, preferably Nevisians, all properly educated in the English Standard Schools of their island. They were men “who appeared in public with white shirts, starched collars, ties, and jackets” and their dignified wives. “Every West Indian we knew,” she wrote, “had an upright piano in the parlor.”

Connie was the ninth of 12 children, three of whom died in infancy. Her father was a Yale University chef, “who stood and dressed and walked like he was president of the First National Bank.” Later in life she would appreciate the fact that her father’s “maternal grandfather was white, that his maternal and paternal grandparents were free people, and that those facts accounted for his arrogant attitude…” Her mother, in 1936, became the first woman elected to an Episcopal Church vestry.

“West Indians are famous for being a proud people – some even might say arrogant,” says Joel Motley. “My mother inherited a great self-confidence and unflappable sense of self.” Constance Baker (who married real estate broker Joel Wilson Motley, Jr., in 1946) never had to fight off the inner demons of fear and inferiority sometimes instilled in Southern people of color by the deprivations and violence of segregation. Even as she became a lightning rod for the rise of massive white-supremacist resistance to school-desegregation and the target of mob taunts, demonstrations, and verbal abuse, she retained an erect posture, a calm demeanor, a string of pearls, and a thousand-mile stare.

“I don’t believe she was ever scared of those people or ever intimidated by them,” says Joel. “She saw them as benighted, primitive, ignorant.”

“When Connie traveled into the South for a hearing, her presence was resented by many whites, but she was treated like visiting royalty in the black community,” Derrick Bell wrote in an email. He is a professor of constitutional law currently teaching at NYU Law School, the first African-American professor to receive tenure at Harvard Law School, and the only academic to relinquish a tenured position at Harvard, which he did in protest against Harvard’s failure to appoint women of color. He served as a young lawyer on the LDF legal staff under Motley. “People stopped her on the street to shake her hand and wish her well. During lunch breaks, or in the evening, if we dined in one of the black restaurants, she’d have trouble getting through her meal, for she always responded graciously to those who came over to our table to greet her.

“A courtroom, when Connie Motley argued, became a place of rich racial drama,” emailed Professor Bell. “Here were the whites on one side, exhibiting silent hostility, and the blacks on the other side, barely able to restrain their pride. Here was a black woman, obviously better prepared than her white opponents, speaking firmly and with full knowledge of her case. The judge usually ruled against her, but no matter! For these black people, many of whom had spent their lives in involuntary deference to whites, these hearings were priceless scenes, generating tales to be told and even embellished at the barber shops and beauty parlors for weeks to come.”

Motley displayed a rare mix of aristocracy and compassion: her elegance, her fortitude, her high intelligence, her sterling education she placed at the service of others. The cat-calling and threats and jostling angry mobs seemed barely to catch her attention. “Connie took it all in stride,” says Professor Bell. “On one occasion, I recall, we ran into the opposing attorney at the airport. Connie extended her hand in greeting and the attorney refused to take it. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘you still don’t shake hands with black people. Very well,’ and off she glided to her gate.”

Though the belligerent racists didn’t scare Motley, finally they exhausted her. “When Medgar Evers was gunned down in 1965 in front of his house, it really almost did her in,” says Joel Motley. “She sometimes took me with her on trips to Mississippi and I played in that front-yard with his children. My mother had warned Medgar about the bushes in front of his house, that assassins could hide there. When Medgar was murdered, my mother’s reaction was – in addition to enormous grief – simply exhaustion. ‘How much of this can a person endure?’”


If the Colored sign was an historic marker of segregation she reached up and took, another one was thrown at her.

In January 1961, a young man named James H. Meredith wrote to the Legal Defense Fund for legal assistance. He had applied for admission to the University of Mississippi, he explained, adding, in fantastic understatement, “I am anticipating encountering some type of difficulty.”

“This man has got to be crazy,” said Thurgood Marshall, reading Meredith’s letter. Motley took that to mean that the case was hers if she wanted it.

Meredith was a soft-spoken, smallish, married Air Force veteran, with a light beard, who carried a cane. In his own autobiography he would write that, by 15, he was aware that he was a Negro, “but until I was 15 I did not know that my group was supposed to be the inferior one.”

Ole Miss was of course the bastion of white aristocracy in the South. The lawsuit – charging that Meredith was refused admission to the university based solely upon his race – was filed on May 31, 1961, in the charged atmosphere of Freedom Riders pouring into Jackson and filling up the Mississippi jails. A complicated series of hearings and appeals ensued. The State searched high and low for a felony record with which to deny Meredith’s application, but found none. Motley, meanwhile, urged her client to make a sharp appearance in court by shaving off his beard, wearing his dress blue uniform, and losing the cane. Or was there an injury which caused him to carry the cane? she asked. She was touched when he replied that he carried it for protection, in case he was attacked.

On September 10, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld James Meredith’s right to admission to the University of Mississippi. Governor Ross Barnett immediately vowed to block it. Ultimately it would require personal intervention from U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and hosts of federal marshals, U.S. border patrolmen, and federal prison guards to protect Meredith against a mob of more than 2,000 people who charged the campus with guns, bricks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. The rioting led to two deaths and 160 injuries, including gunshot wounds suffered by 28 marshals. But on the morning of October 1, 1962, James Meredith registered for classes, and in 1964, he graduated.

A quieter victory for Motley came earlier in the case. One of the issues had been remanded from the district court to a three-judge panel. Motley found herself one day in another Jackson courtroom, before three federal judges perusing the order she had prepared and her secretary had typed. Motley was used to being patronized and insulted by the white bench – appellations ranged from “Honey” to “Constance” to “that Motley woman.” She nevertheless behaved circumspectly, maintaining the dignity of the American judiciary, even if the judges did not.

Suddenly one of the three federal judges – a recalcitrant type, dedicated to protecting and preserving “the Southern way of life” -- discovered a typo.

In a rage – with disgust at the entire Meredith case – the federal judge picked up the order and bitterly threw it at the attorney.

The latest pleadings in Meredith v. Fair tumbled to the floor of the courtroom. Constance Baker Motley later often said: “The Meredith case was the last battle of the Civil War.” The judges in that courtroom knew it, too.

As Motley bent to pick up the order, she glimpsed a second judge reach out to try to restrain the throwing-hand of the first, but too late. He then let his hand rest on his angry colleague’s forearm and said, gently but definitively: “It’s over.”


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