Constance Baker Motley: A Woman Of Substance

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By James Gaskell

Even in England it is hard to leave Nevis behind. My son at Leeds University is trying to make contact with Nevisians in that city, and I, peacefully reading the newspapers, am struck by the pictures and obituaries of Constance Baker Motley, a most eminent daughter of our island. She was born of Nevisian parents in Newhaven, Connecticut on September 14th 1921 and died, just into her eighty-fifth year, on September 21st 2005.

A long life, much of which, in one capacity or another, was given up to a struggle for justice and social equality between the races. Her parents left Nevis to better themselves, and, as it happened, to produce twelve children. Constance was number nine. Dad was a chef at Yale University. Mum was the founder of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

Apparently Constance showed little early interest in race or politics until, aged 15, she was turned away from a public beach in Connecticut because she was black. She was a good student at high school in Newhaven, but had little prospect of going on to University, until, one day, aged eighteen, she gave a speech at a local social centre which so impressed the listening Clarence Blakeslee, a white businessman and philanthropist, that he offered to pay the fees.

She went to Fisk University, an all black college, where she found that most of her fellow students intended to remain and prosper within the segregated African American society. She had a broader vision. After Fisk she took an economics degree at New York University, and then went to Columbia University to read law.

While there she met Thurgood Marshall, leading lawyer in the NAACP. He offered her a job at the Legal Defence Fund’s office. And when she graduated in 1946 she became an assistant and later associate counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defence Fund.

By 1954, the year of the US Supreme Court’s hearing of Brown v School Board of Topeka she had worked her way up so that it was she who drafted the original complaint in the case. This was then argued successfully by Marshall, himself, later the first black justice on the Supreme Court. Brown was the case in which the Court ruled that there was no such thing as ‘separate but equal’ education, and thus declared that segregated schooling was unconstitutional.

Regretably the white segregationalists of the Southern States intended to make implementation of the Court’s decision almost impossible. Although Brown was a landmark decision, it marked only a stage in the fight for racial social justice.

Mrs. Motley was at the heart of this struggle for many more years. She became lead counsel for the Defense Fund, and won nine out of the ten cases which she personally argued before the Supreme Court. These were cases which ended segregation in restaurants and lunch counters and restrooms.

In 1963 she represented more than one thousand black children who had been suspended from school in Birmingham Alabama for taking part in civil rights demonstrations and advised Martin Luther King, the Rev. Abernathy and other civil rights leaders when they were locked up in various Southern jails.

Perhaps her most famous case was that of James Meredith who sought admission to the University of Mississippi, then (1962) an all white establishment. The case dragged on and on, but after sixteen months Meredith succeeded, entered the University as the sole black man and obtained a diploma. His case focused international attention on segregation in the Southern States, and shone a favourable beam upon Constance Motley.

In 1964 she was the first black woman to be elected to the New York Senate, and became the Manhattan Borough President, the first woman to occupy that position. In 1966 President Johnson appointed her a Judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In 1982 she was made Chief Judge for this Court, perhaps the busiest and most important Federal Court in the U.S.

I did not realise until reading her autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law: The Life of a Pioneer for Black Civil Rights and Women’s Rights (1988) earlier this year just how pre-eminent she was. In everything important that she did she was the first black woman to do it. She was simply a ‘first’ all the way through her long and admirable life.

Certainly she had luck. If kind Mr. Blakeslee had not heard her speak she would not have gone to university. If Thurgood Marshall had not noticed her, she might not have worked for the NAACP. And work it was. Underfunded and understaffed, you didn’t do it for the money.

Thurgood had great stamina and was known in the preparation stages of a big case to say to his colleagues at midnight ‘We will have a fifteen minutes break’! All in the Civil Rights Movement had to have courage. The Reverend Delane of Somerton, South Carolina, who was a voice for his people received a letter, probably from the just formed White Citizen’s Council, giving him ten days to leave town or die.

The letter referred to a case of 1898 in which a black postmaster’s house had been burned, and then he had been killed. The Reverend Delane was an enormously courageous man. His job was at risk. He lost it. His church was at risk. It burned.

It was amongst people such as the Reverend Delane and Medgar Evers that our Constance Baker Motley lived and worked. She cannot have been any less courageous than her clients and companions. Indeed she spent a night under guard at the home of Medgar Evers just before he was murdered in his front yard.

In December 2002 I wrote in this newspaper ‘…Commentators have concentrated on the naming of this Airport (The Nevis Airport). For me it is simple. However outstanding a citizen may be it is not right because it is not fair to his opponents, that a prominent public edifice (or a highway) be named after a serving politician who may be seeking re-election.

Nothing wrong with ‘Newcastle’, the place name. Overall the naming is not of importance; what is of significance is the value to the taxpayer of that which he, with his money has bought…’.

Had I been aware when I wrote that, what I now know of Constance Baker Motley, I am sure that I would have put her name forward. The Premier, after whom the Airport is now named cannot, in public service or in international repute hold a candle to Judge Motley. She is unique. Her reputation is assured. She is in the history books. All who study the Civil Rights Movement will have to refer to her and acknowledge her importance in that struggle.

Two centuries ago Napoleon said ‘The idea of dedicating monuments to those who have rendered themselves useful to the people, is honourable to all nations; but it should be left to after ages to construct them when the good opinion conceived of the heroes is confirmed’.

St. Kitts for Bradshaw, Antigua for Bird and Anguilla for Webster, have chosen to honour their local politicians, Chief Ministers, Premiers, Prime Ministers, whatever titles they had. With the passing of Judge Motley, Nevis has a chance to break out of this pattern.

Let the Premier, who, we were told did not name our Airport for himself, but accepted his Cabinet’s request in that regard, now stand his own name down and replace it by that of Constance Baker Motley, thus honouring not only her family, but also the Island of Nevis, in recognition of the extraordinary, internationally recognised, historic achievements of this most exceptional daughter of Nevis.