NYU Alumni & Friends Connect

March 15, 2021

By Celeste Brewer (GSAS ’16), Katie Ehrlich (CAS ’07, GSAS ’12), and Deborah Shapiro (GSAS ’16)

The Honorable Constance Baker Motley (WSC ’43, HON ’85)

This Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting Constance Baker Motley, an NYU alumna who broke gender and racial barriers throughout her storied legal career.  

Constance Baker Motley graduated from Washington Square College in 1943 with a degree in Economics. She joined the staff of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1945, clerking for Thurgood Marshall during her final year at Columbia Law School.

Motley worked with the Legal Defense Fund for 20 years. She contributed to major legal victories that dismantled segregation, including the ground-breaking Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. She also served as chief counsel for James Meredith throughout his struggle to attend the University of Mississippi, and for Black students seeking admission to other public universities. Her career with the Legal Defense Fund culminated in work as chief staff attorney for cases involving discrimination in housing and transportation. Nine of the ten cases she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court were decided in her favor.

Motley later served in the New York State Senate and as Manhattan borough president. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, making her the first Black woman on the federal bench. She became chief judge of the district in 1982, and senior judge in 1986.

Motley was elected to the NYU Board of Trustees, serving from 1968 to 1975. She earned numerous awards and honorary degrees from universities throughout the country, including the Washington Square College Alumni Achievement Award in 1963. She died in New York City on September 28, 2005.