Constance Baker Motley Is the Civil Rights Movement's Unsung Heroine

A new documentary about lawyer, judge, and state senator Constance Baker Motley profiles her life's work as a courageous and unprecedented champion for civil rights.

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Apr 17 2015, 9:00pm

The judges of the US Court for the Southern District of New York, 1966. (Constance Baker Motley is in the back row, middle.) In 1986 she would become chief judge. Photo courtesy of Joel Motley

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The Trials of Constance Baker Motley is an exceptional new short documentary that profiles one of the lesser-known, yet most influential players of the civil rights movement. In her second year at law school, Motley began working for Thurgood Marshall, and the NAACP's legal defense team hired her as an attorney shortly after. She soon became the first black woman to argue a case before the US Supreme Court, winning nine out of her ten cases, including the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education. She continued to accomplish more historical firsts in the years that followed: Motley was the first black woman to sit on the New York State senate, to become the Manhattan borough president, and in 1966 she became the first black woman to serve as a federal judge.

The 25-minute documentary, which is directed by Rick Rodgers and produced by Motley's son, Joel, is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday. The film opens with a scene that illustrates her personality and wry sense of humor. In footage from a 1966 press conference, a reporter says to her, "You've been described as being soft-spoken, but very tough. Would you say that's an accurate description?" To which Judge Motley replies, "I read that in the New York Times this morning, and I'm sure they're always accurate."

Her calm and fearless demeanor is striking considering the dangerous and grueling work in which she was immersed. The film meticulously weaves footage that speaks to her personality—home videos and personal photographs—with those of her accomplishments, shown through interviews, archival news reels, and recordings from a project undertaken by the Columbia University Oral History Research Office in the late 1970s.

As if to contrast the image of humanity and composure that Motley embodies at the opening of the film, minutes later we see footage of armed guards that had been sent to protect the homes she and other NAACP activists stayed in when visiting the South for desegregation trials. We're reminded of the threats, and stomach-turning insults: The film briefly shows one fragment of racist hate-mail that was sent to Motley, but the voice of one of the people she helped quickly interrupts the letter's hateful words. It is an interview with Charlayne Hunter Gault, whom Motley represented and helped to gain admittance as the first black student to the University of Georgia in 1961.

"It was still a battle," Gault says. "It was dangerous. Nobody ever knew what was going to happen when we walked out of the courtroom, or when she walked into some place in Mississippi where everybody hated what she stood for. You never got the sense that she, or any of those lawyers were afraid, when fear would have totally been justifiable."

Trailer of ' The Trials of Constance Baker Motley' from 03 on Vimeo.

Motley was the only woman on the legal defense team, and she often had to leave her young son and husband in New York for weeks at a time while representing these cases in Southern courts. Her son, Joel Motley, now an investment banker and cochair of Human Rights Watch, not only produced the film but conducted interviews.

"What my mother was doing was all before the women's movement," he pointed out when we met over coffee alongside his wife, Isolde, and daughter, Hannah. He recalled an incident his mother described in her autobiography, Equal Justice Under Law, about the first case she worked on in Mississippi.

"The judge decided to leave the doors of the courtroom open so that people could walk by to see the black lawyers," he said. "Which was wild itself, and seeing the black woman lawyer was like seeing something out of a carnival for them. The Southern newspapers didn't know how to describe her. One of them called her 'The Motley Woman.' There was no pattern for this person who was not just black, but female, in your courthouse."

He remembers that when he would see her on the news, he'd sometimes kiss the television screen. From a very young age, Joel knew that his mother was doing important work. "There are only a couple of times I am aware of that she was afraid," he said. "I think when the fear took a decisive toll, was in 1963. It was the year the girls were killed in the Birmingham church bombing, and when Medgar Evers, who was the chief NAACP lawyer in Mississippi, was killed in front of his house. Two years before that, I'd been there as a kid playing with his kids, and my mother realized that could have been me. She was close to Medgar, and when he died, that was around the time she started thinking about career alternatives like New York Senate."

There weren't any models for successfully being a black woman, and a wife, and a mother in that role.

His wife, Isolde, an author and former magazine editor, added, "That's when you really see what it was like to be a woman—a wife and a mother—in that movement. If you think of all the other things that she went through, and the other friends she lost, the fact that her only child had been staying in that house not long before, was what had more of an impact than anything else." Isolde said that she's happy about the film because there's been so little attention paid to women in the civil rights movement. "I remember her telling me when I was pregnant with Hannah, that when she was pregnant with Joel was one of the most difficult times. The women at the NAACP legal defense fund thought it was completely inappropriate for a pregnant woman to be out in court, appearing in public in that way. There weren't any models for successfully being a black woman, and a wife, and a mother in that role."

The film includes footage of Mr. Motley as a young boy, accompanying his mother at the March on Washington up on the platform with the speakers. He told me that they almost didn't go because his mother was tired from working so many cases and traveling. In his mother's autobiography, she writes, "I was overwhelmed with joy that [Joel] was old enough to remember that day... When Dr. King finally got his turn at the microphone, we nonbelievers in the effectiveness of trying to win over die-hard segregationists sat in awe as he made his 'I Have a Dream' speech. It brought tears to all of our weary eyes. It was the 20th century's finest hour."

At one point, the film shows a news story from when Motley was borough president, in which a journalist asks her, "How do you manage to run a home, be a wife, and be responsible for 1.7 million citizens in Manhattan?" It's a tired question for a journalist to ask a woman in the public eye today, but interesting to explore in a time when it was uncommon to see someone in a position of power who was also a wife and a mother. This was when Motley's granddaughter, Hannah, who was quiet for most of my interview with the Motleys, commented, "You would never ask a man that question."

Constance Baker Motley with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House. Photos courtesy of Joel Motley

Hannah, who wears her grandmother's wedding ring on a chain around her neck, is carrying on her esteemed grandmother's legacy. She is in her first year at Yale Law School, where, under a supervising professor, she is already defending people who are facing jail time: She recently won her first case. Hannah said she is interested in the issues of 21st century policing, and of juveniles who have been sentenced to life without parole. If her grandmother were alive today, Hannah posited, "I think that she would be working against the mass incarceration of African American and Latino young men."

Her father agreed. "What really drove my mother was that, even though there wasn't as much obvious oppression in the North as there was in the South at that time, for anyone who was black, there was a major dislocation for, as the Brown case showed, your sense of self worth," he said. "The problem of separate but equal was that it made people feel inferior. I think still to this day that's part of what fuels a lot of anger and you see it re-erupted with the police shootings. That's just a rehash of the same feelings of being oppressed and cheated. As Hannah is saying, the mass incarceration is another example. You still see a Southern justice system and it's not just in the South. It happens up here—a justice system that is a tool of abuse as much as it is a means of maintaining law and order."

The family acknowledged Judge Motley's work as part of an ongoing struggle, and Joel added, "When my mother was in the last year or two of her life, she said she realized that because of Hannah she would continue to live on."

Hannah recalled her grandmother taking her back-to-school shopping every year, adding that she recently wore two of her grandmother's dresses to friends' weddings. "She's my role model," Hannah said. "When I was in first grade, I had to do a project on the civil rights movement, and my parents said I should talk to Grandma. I asked her, 'Did you know Dr. King?' and she laughed and said, ' Know him?' She told me about going to jails in the South and getting him and the other activists in the movement out of jail. That was where it started for me."

The Trials of Constance Baker Motley opens at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, April 19. Find showtimes and other information here.

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