Constance Baker Motley – Black History

The pathbreaking lawyer and “Civil Rights Queen” was the first Black woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court

Tomiko Brown-Nagin

In the spring of 1963, Constance Baker Motley watched the protests in Birmingham, Alabama, with hope—and concern. The nation’s most segregated city, Birmingham had become the center of the struggle for Black equality. Previous demonstrations there led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom she considered “an American hero,” had produced “no results,” Motley wrote in her memoir. Consequently, King and other leaders began planning more dramatic action, including the Children’s Crusade. “Civil disobedience was not working; massive resistance was,” she wrote. Indeed, the zeal of the protesters in April and May of that year led to a climactic legal battle. Motley’s heroic role in it would help lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as public outrage over the violent white response to peaceful protests spurred Congress to action. 



3/6 The U.S. Supreme Court – Vs – Dred Scott Decision ruled that blacks could not sue in federal court to be citizens

The Case of Dred Scott in the United States Supreme Court

In an infamous decision, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that American negros were not US citizens and that they couldn’t hear his case. Not only that but as Dred Scott was a slave, he was the property of his masters and the court ruled it could not take property away without compensation.

Born a slave and for many years owned by an army officer, Dred Scott had lived in Wisconsin, where slavery was banned. After his owner’s death he tried to purchase his freedom but was refused and his case, based on the fact he had lived in Wisconsin, worked it way through the Missouri state courts before reaching the US Supreme Court.

The case shows the tension between the north and south in the years leading up to the civil war. The decision was only overturned after the civil war by the passing of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.

Location signed: Washington, D.C., USA

Source: Smithsonian