Scholar shines light on unsung civil-rights hero Constance Baker Motley

Related Media

WILLIMANTIC, CT (02/26/2018) Scholar and award-winning film producer Gary L. Ford Jr. examined black history triumphs and shared his insight on jurist and civil rights champion Constance Baker Motley as part of Black History Month at Eastern Connecticut State University on Feb. 14.

Ford crossed paths with Motley - a fellow native of New Haven, CT - early on in his life. A member of a family of lawyers and a graduate of Columbia University, Ford has felt compelled to share Motley's story ever since. The more he learned of the activist's feats, the more he realized that she had been overlooked not only in textbooks, but on other platforms as well.

While some people from the civil rights movement have been highlighted for their efforts, many groundbreakers like Motley have disappeared into the background. "We need to make sure we talk about these other hidden figures," said Ford. "Our history is not really complete. Without these grassroots leaders, without these women, I wouldn't be where I am today."

Ford opened his presentation by giving the audience an overview of the extensive research that went into his dissertation-guided novel, "Constance Baker Motley: One Woman's Fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice under Law" and the subsequent documentary, "Justice is a Black Woman: The Life and Work of Constance Baker Motley."

Motley was the first African-American woman to become a federal judge, and a key component in landmark cases such as Meredith v. Fair and Brown v. Board of Education.

Ford's documentary, which debuted in 2012, opens with Maya Angelou reading her poem "Still I Rise," and accurately captures Motley as an established crusader. With notable commentators - President Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Joel Motley III, members of the Little Rock Nine and Dr. Bernard Lafayette among them - and a thoughtful assessment of Motley's historical accomplishments, the film aims to give her the credit she deserves.

Contributors called attention to Motley's upbringing with immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Nevis, her ability to excel academically despite external setbacks and her unwavering persistence during a professional career actively combatting racism. She was the only woman attorney at the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Legal Defense and Educational Fund during the bulk of the civil rights movement.

Motley won cases that ended de facto segregation in white-only restaurant spaces, protected the rights of protestors and secured the right for black people to register, vote and have general access to the political power structure. During this time, she worked closely with Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Justice is a Black Woman," in collaboration with Ford's other studies, successfully humanizes one of history's strongest characters, not only by showcasing the monumental services that Motley provided through her involvement with the law, but also by evaluating the life she constructed around these achievements. "From a very young age, she was always one to speak the truth to power," said Ford.

Written by Jordan Corey

Eastern is the state of Connecticut's public liberal arts university, serving more than 5,300 students annually at its Willimantic campus and satellite locations. In addition to attracting students from 163 of Connecticut's 169 towns, Eastern also draws students from 20 other states and 29 other countries. A residential campus offering 40 majors and 65 minors, Eastern offers students a strong liberal art foundation grounded in an array of applied learning opportunities. Eastern has been awarded "Green Campus" status by the Princeton Review seven years in a row. For more information, visit