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Recognizing and Honoring the Life and Achievements of Constance Baker Motley

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise today to say that, as I have often thought, justice is a curious thing.

She has been poked and prodded, detained and defaced, and her piercing light is too often hidden from view. Justice had a tough time in Montgomery and Selma, and she took a sore drumming alongside Susan B. Anthony and the other fighters for women's suffrage. If you asked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer where justice was during those cold nights in jail in 1963, they might have said that she was nowhere to be found.

But inevitably and incredibly justice always seems to find her way. She creeps into the dark spots of our history. She rears her head where she is not wanted. And, eventually, she causes the barriers meant to hold her back to crack and crumble, under the collective weight of those who fight for her cause.

On January 25, 1966, justice was at it again. It was on that date after a storied career of educational success, fervent legal advocacy, and legislative accomplishments that Constance Baker Motley became the first African-American woman appointed to the Federal judiciary. Judge Motley passed away on September 28, 2005, at the age of 84. She is survived by her husband Joel, a son, three sisters and a brother. I rise today to honor her and the concept of justice for which she fought all her life.

Constance Baker was born on September 14, 1921, in New Haven, CT. Her father was a chef for an exclusive club at Yale, and her mother was active in the NAACP. She graduated from New York University in 1943 and received her law degree from Columbia University in 1946. As a third-year student at Columbia, Judge Motley joined the staff of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She would eventually become its principal trial attorney.

Judge Motley's list of accomplishments while working for the Legal Defense Fund is stunning. In 1950, she drafted the complaint that would become Brown v. Board of Education. In 1957 she argued the case in Little Rock, AR, which prompted President Eisenhower to call in Federal troops to protect the ``Little Rock Nine''. She personally argued the 1962 case in which James Meredith won admission to the University of Mississippi, as well as the suit that resulted in the enrollment of black students at the University of Georgia. All told, Judge Motley won 9 of the 10 civil rights cases she argued before the Supreme Court, an astounding accomplishment for that or any other time period.

After 20 years with the NAACP, Judge Motley was elected to the New York State Senate and became the first African-American woman to serve in that body. Among her first tasks was fighting for additional low- and middle-income housing. In February of 1965, Judge Motley was elected to serve as the President of the Borough of Manhattan, becoming the first woman of any race to serve in that post. And in 1966, President Johnson helped bring justice's work full circle. He appointed Judge Motley to the Federal District Court for the Southern District Court of New York, making her the first African American woman to sit on the Federal bench. She served with distinction in the Southern District, and became the chief judge of this court in 1982. She took senior status in 1986.

I honor Judge Motley today. I honor her for her wisdom, for her tenacity, and for the fire with which she advocated for equal rights. And, equally important, I honor the spirit of justice that motivated Constance Baker Motley. It spurred her on from her early days in Connecticut to her long and distinguished tenure on the Federal bench. I ask that this body and all Americans remember Judge Motley today. And I ask that we attempt to infuse the same sense of justice which guided Judge Motley into our own work, and our daily lives.

I am pleased to join a bipartisan group of my colleagues in introducing a resolution honoring the life of Judge Constance Baker Motley and I hope this body will move swiftly to its passage.

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