As a prominent civil rights attorney, Motley won nine of the ten cases she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, including the 1962 case in which James Meredith won admission to the University of Mississippi. In 1966 she became the first black woman to become a federal judge.
Motley was born to West Indian immigrants. Her father was a chef at an exclusive Yale University fraternity. She was an outstanding student, but her parents could not afford to send her to college. After graduating from high school, she took a position with the National Youth Administration. Philanthropist Clarence Blakelee, impressed by Motley's intelligence and oration, offered to finance her education. She enrolled at Fisk University and transferred to New York University, where she earned a BA in economics in 1943. She went on to Columbia Law School, where she met Thurgood Marshall, who hired her as a law clerk at the New York branch of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She remained with the fund after graduating in 1946. She married Joel Motley, a real estate broker, in 1949. They have one son, Joel W. Motley, III, a Lawyer and Investment Banker.
Mrs. Motley joined the legal staff of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. when she was a senior at Columbia University School of Law and subsequently, as associate counsel, became its principal trial attorney. She was one of the lawyers who helped write the briefs filed in the United States Supreme Court in the leading school desegregation case entitled: Brown v. Board Education in 1954. In 1964 she was elected to the New York State Senate, the first black woman to do so, and in 1965 became the first woman president of a Manhattan borough. Following her judicial appointment in 1966, Motley was made chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1982 and senior judge in 1986.

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