Aug. 18, 1963
When James Meredith walked across the stage to become the first Black student to graduate from the University of Mississippi, NAACP lawyer Constance Baker Motley cheered him.
When she was only 15, she decided to become a lawyer, fueled by Abraham Lincoln’s writings and by rejection — turned away from a beach because of her skin color. Her hopes of pursuing such a dream seemed remote, given her family’s meager income. At age 18, she delivered such an impassioned speech that local businessman Clarence W. Blakeslee offered to finance her education.
After law school, she began working for the NAACP. In 1950, she wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education, and as a civil rights lawyer, she won nine of the 10 cases she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the first case, she shepherded Meredith’s admission through the maze of courts, eventually getting the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to not only order his 1962 admission, but to find Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett in contempt.
In the years that followed, she continued to break down barriers, becoming the first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate, the first female president of the Manhattan Borough and the first Black female to serve as federal judge, but she would never forget her arduous campaign to win Meredith’s admission, calling it the most thrilling moment in her life.
Four years before her death in 2005, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal.