Civil Disobedience

T he corner of Edgewood Avenue and Garden Street near Amistad Academy Middle School has an extra green street sign. It identifies the spot as Constance B. Motley Corner, which rests between the Day Street birthplace and the Garden Street childhood home of the activist, politician and federal judge who played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

Motley isn’t as well-known as some of the men of that movement, but she’s no less important, says her niece Constance Royster, a New Haven attorney and the retired director of development for Yale Divinity School, who now consults for nonprofits. Royster wants every child in New Haven to know the story of the woman who grew up on the same streets and made such a difference in the world. “It’s important to lift her up as a local woman, a local child as they say,” Royster says. “It’s important that her contributions to this country—her many, many firsts—be known, recognized, celebrated and that her legacy be carried forward.”

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The “firsts” to which Royster alludes include Motley’s election to the New York State Senate in 1964 and her appointment as a federal judge by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. She was the first black woman to serve in either of those positions. But Motley is perhaps best known for her work as a trial attorney for the NAACP, playing a key role in many of its school desegregation cases, including Brown v. Board of Education and the racial integration of the Universities of Mississippi and Georgia. In the course of her career, Motley argued 10 cases before the Supreme Court, nine of which she won outright. The 10th was reversed 20 years later in her favor.

Motley’s parents, Rachel Keziah Huggins Baker and Willoughby Alva Baker, arrived in New Haven in 1906 and 1907 from the West Indies island of Nevis. Born in 1921, Motley describes the New Haven of her childhood in her autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law (1998). “Although blacks were only 2 percent of the population, the neighborhood was quite thoroughly integrated,” she writes. “The grammar school was two short blocks away. We seemed to have no more and no less than everyone else… Fear and racial conflict were simply not a part of the landscape.”

Yet Motley recalls childhood experiences that foretold a different story. An Amistad mural at the entrance of Augusta Lewis Troup Junior High School depicted African hero Cinqué as light-skinned and brown-haired. “Only in the early 1950s did I learn about the Amistad and its historical relevance,” she writes. “The whole time I was at Troop [sic], nobody ever explained to us what that mural represented. Black history as such was not taught. All of our teachers were white, and the students were overwhelmingly white… Some of the black students whispered that [Cinqué] was supposed to be a colored man. But to me, it was simply an illustration of a Viking ship… We black students never raised sensitive questions about race and color, and the white students never did either. Some subjects, it seems, were simply taboo. Race-conscious America was at least thirty years away.”

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Shortly after graduating from Hillhouse High School in 1939, Motley spoke at a community meeting at the Dixwell Avenue Q House. New Haven philanthropist Clarence Blakeslee, a prominent white businessman who had also funded many community projects, was impressed. As Motley tells it, he called her to his office the next day and asked why she wasn’t going to college. She told him she couldn’t afford it, though she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. “With raised, truly bushy eyebrows, he said, ‘Well, I don’t know much about women in the law, but if that’s what you want to do, I’ll be happy to pay your way…’”

Motley left New Haven in 1941 to attend Fisk University in Nashville, where she first experienced daily racial segregation. (Her only prior experience had been being turned away from a whites-only beach club in Milford.) In 1942, she transferred to New York University, then went on to law school at Columbia University, where she was surprised to find several other women among her classmates as the men were going off to war. Blakeslee attended her 1946 law school graduation and offered to help her find employment, but by then she had gotten a job with the NAACP. “He seemed pleased to learn that I had secured a position on my own and would be doing public-service work,” Motley writes.

At the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Motley met Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black justice of the Supreme Court. At the LDF, as it’s known, she went on to play a pivotal role in many of the civil rights era’s key legal challenges and served as the lead attorney on Meredith v. Fair, successfully arguing for James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi.

Royster remembers Motley, who died in 2005, as “statuesque, but she had this wry kind of smile, and she had a good sense of humor.” Despite her fame, Royster says, Motley always put family first. “After my grandmother passed in ’73, she was… definitely the matriarch. Everyone looked up to her for the big answers. It wasn’t something she claimed, it just happened.” Taking on the many roles she accepted can’t have been easy, as the film’s title suggests. “First of all, the [legal] battles were not easy, the civil rights movement was not easy and being a black woman lawyer in the south was not easy,” Royster says.

The New Haven Museum is offering two chances to get to know Motley and her legacy better with a pair of free screenings of the short documentary film The Trials of Constance Baker Motley (2015) on March 3 at 2 p.m. and March 6 at 5:30 p.m. Royster will introduce the film—“[spanning] Motley’s distinguished legal career and her life as a civil rights pioneer,” according to the museum—and afterward lead “a dialogue during which community members can share stories and memories of Motley and the impact she had on them.” Created by director and cinematographer Rick Rodgers, Trials is being shown in partnership with the Greater New Haven African American Historical Society.

Despite her many accomplishments, Motley maintained a sense of modesty. In her autobiography, she acknowledges the “dream” of arguing a case before the Supreme Court, an opportunity she “never expected to have.” But the victories, she writes, were really the Legal Defense Fund’s, and “I must acknowledge, of course, that I also coincided with history, and I have never lost sight of that fact.”

New Haven premiere of The Trials of Constance Baker Motley
New Haven Museum – 114 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
March 3 at 2pm; March 6 at 5:30pm
Free, with limited space; reserve seating via (203) 562-4183 x119 or RSVP@newhavenmuseum.org

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 courtesy of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. Image 2, of a yearbook kept at the New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library, and image 3, of a memorial banner posted in the Chapel West district, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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