Celebrating Women’s History Month: An Unsung Pioneer of Civil Rights
By Heyward Watson
At Third Sector Company we believe that the contributions of interim leaders can be purposeful, transformational, methodical, and profound. This Women’s History Month we recognize and honor the same contributions from women in community leadership.
Constance Baker Motley, a pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement, was purposeful, transformational, methodical, and profound.
Constance grew up near Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut with a nuanced understanding of black history. Upon graduation from Columbia Law School in 1946, Mrs. Motley continued her work at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
She was hired by Thurgood Marshall, the Chief of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The Legal Defense and Educational Fund was created to organize a legal assault against segregation and discrimination. Mrs. Motley was a Senior Strategist in the original complaint in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas 1954, which resulted in a landmark decision establishing racial segregation in public schools as unconstitutional.
During her nearly 20 years of working for the NAACP, she represented Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund efforts to litigate the integration of the Universities of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Mrs. Motley faced many obstacles during her work at the NAACP; she continued arguing cases in hostile towns, against hostile lawyers, and before mean-spirited judges in the desire to have equal justice for all. She argued 10 Supreme Court Cases (winning 9) and participated in 60 cases that reached the Supreme Court. She left the NAACP in 1965.
She then entered New York elected politics, becoming the first female Manhattan Borough President and the first Black woman in the New York State Senate.
President Lydon Johnson appointed her to a federal judgeship in the United States Court for the Southern District of New York. Mrs. Motley’s appointment was contested for seven months before confirmation by the US Senate on August 30, 1966. The confirmation made her the first Black female federal judge. As a federal judge, Mrs. Motley intentionally befriended and mentored younger Black women judges through the process of growing their careers.
In her 1998 published autobiography, her researcher stated, “The civil rights movement was the movement of an era. It changed our nation’s history. For her, it was the chance of a lifetime.”
Constance Baker Motley embodies the four tenets that underline Third Sector Company’s commitment to leadership continuity solutions for community impact organizations. They are Principles of Practice taught at Interim Executives Academy for those aspiring interim leaders and as a reinforcement for long-standing interim professionals.
Mrs. Motley was able to do something purposeful, transformational, methodical, and profound, which produced a culture that supports learning, equality, equity, and mutual respect. We hope you’ll join us in celebrating this unsung pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement.
Senior Strategist – Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
Third Sector Company, Inc.