On the cusp of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, and for the first time in the Elm City, special screenings of the film “The Trials of Constance Baker Motley” will be held at the New Haven Museum on Sunday, March 3, 2019, at 2 p.m., and Wednesday, March 6, at 5:30 pm. The events are presented in partnership with the Greater New Haven African American Historical Society. Admission is free. Space is limited. To reserve seats: RSVP@newhavenmuseum.org or 203.562.4183 ext.119.
As a young African American woman in the 1930s, Constance Motley’s aspirations of becoming a lawyer were discouraged by family and friends. She stood by her convictions, however, and was successful far beyond her youthful dreams. Her career milestones ranged from working with Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to being appointed to the Federal bench by President Lyndon Johnson, and she became the first African American woman voted New York state senator.
Produced by her son, Joel Motley III, and directed by Rick Rodgers, the film spans Motley’s distinguished legal career and her life as a civil-rights pioneer, and will be preceded by remarks from Motley’s niece, Constance Royster, a New Haven leader in her own right. The screening will be followed by a Q&A, and a dialogue during which community members can share stories and memories of Motley and the impact she had on them.
Royster notes it has been both a great surprise and a disappointment to her that Motley’s life as a civil-rights “shero” is not widely recognized, or even well known in her hometown and state. “This event will offer the public an opportunity to understand how important her work was, and to celebrate her life and achievements.”
Born in New Haven in 1921, Motley was one of 12 siblings born to West Indian immigrants. From a young age she was taught to treat others with respect, be on her best behavior always, and tend to her studies.
While attending Hillhouse High School, Motley served as both president for New Haven’s NAACP youth council and secretary of the New Haven Adult Community Council. Shortly after high school she delivered a speech that captured the attention of New Haven philanthropist Clarence Blakeslee, who funded her college and law school education. It was not until 1941, on her way to attend Fisk University in Nashville, that she was first confronted with segregation: in Cincinnati she was forced to change train cars and rode the rest of the trip on a car marked “colored.” She later transferred to New York University where she earned a B.A. in economics.
Upon graduating from Columbia Law School, she married Joel Wilson Motley Jr. and worked as a law clerk to Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As one of the NAACP’s principal trial attorneys, she played a role in all the major school de-segregation cases. She helped write briefs filed in Brown v. Board of Education, and personally tried cases resulting in the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi and Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes to the University of Georgia. In the 1950s and 1960s, she argued 10 civil-rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning nine. The 10th was eventually overturned in her favor. She also represented such luminaries as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy.
In 1964, Motley became the first African American woman elected to the New York State Senate. The following year, she was elected the first woman president of the borough of Manhattan. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson named her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, making her the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge. Her nomination was approved only after a fierce battle against a group of Southern senators who sought to block her nomination. She became chief judge of the court in 1982 and senior judge in 1986.
Motley authored dozens of articles on legal and civil rights issues, including several personal tributes to Thurgood Marshall. Her autobiography, “Equal Justice Under Law,” was published in 1998. She received numerous honorary doctorates and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. She was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001, and received the NAACP’s highest honor, the Springarn Medal, in 2003.
About Constance Royster Royster is the principal of Laurel Associates, LLC. She is a recognized fundraising, education, non-profit, and organizational leader. She has served as the director of major giving for WSHU (National Public Radio), at Yale University as associate director of development at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and as director of development at the Yale Divinity School. She has managed external and public relations programs and organized numerous civic engagements with notables in the public and private sectors. Previously, she was founding partner and managing partner at Cooper, Liebowitz, Royster & Wright, a minority-and women-owned New York law firm. Under her leadership, the firm developed a client base of Fortune 100 and 500 corporations and government agencies.
Born and raised in New Haven, Royster is a fellow of Jonathan Edwards College at Yale University. She received her juris doctor from Rutgers University Law School - Newark and a B.A., cum laude, from Yale University. She has held leadership positions at numerous national, local, and international organizations, including The Fund for Women and Girls of the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, International Festival of Arts & Ideas, Dwight Hall at Yale - Center for Public Service and Social Justice, Federal Bar Council, and the Yale Alumni Fund, among others.
About the Greater New Haven African American Historical Society The Greater New Haven African American Historical Society was incorporated in 2004 with the goal of creating a better understanding of the local history and culture of people of African heritage through preservation and celebration. The organization hosts workshops, film series, book signings, exhibits and a number of nationally recognized speakers at annual “Lifetime Achievement Awards” programs. Presenters have included Ben Vereen, Adam C. Powell III, Lonnie Bunch, Judge Constance Baker Motley, Sonia Sanchez, The Last Poets, Hugh Price, Steve Perry, and Marilyn Nelson, among others. The society fields research inquiries and accepts donated materials of historical value and is currently located in the Ethnic Heritage Center on the campus of Southern Connecticut State University. For more information visit: http://www2.southernct.edu/ehc/afam/ or call 203-387-6895.
About the New Haven Museum The New Haven Museum has been collecting, preserving and interpreting the history and heritage of Greater New Haven since its inception as the New Haven Colony Historical Society in 1862. Located in downtown New Haven at 114 Whitney Avenue, the Museum brings more than 375 years of New Haven history to life through its collections, exhibitions, programs and outreach. As a designated Blue Star Museum, the New Haven Museum offers the nation’s active-duty military personnel and their families, including National Guard and Reserve, free admission from Memorial Day through Labor Day. For more information visit www.newhavenmuseum.org or Facebook.com/NewHavenMuseum or call 203-562-4183.