Constance Baker Motley led the legal assault on Jim Crow and became the first Black woman appointed to the federal bench. She spent two decades with the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, assisting Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board of Education. Afterward, she desegregated the South’s public schools and universities and argued ten cases before the Supreme Court, winning nine. Motley also represented countless protestors jailed for their activism, including Martin Luther King, Jr.
Despite Motley’s achievements, scholars have largely overlooked her career. And those who have examined Motley’s work have generally focused on her efforts to dismantle school segregation. Public school desegregation was foundational to Motley’s LDF litigation, but her practice also extended beyond school desegregation. Motley filed scores of cases challenging racial discrimination in voting rights, public accommodations, and housing access.
Using archival research, this Article explores the latter category— Motley’s housing docket—through the lens of Stewart v. Clarke Terrace Unit No. 1, a case she litigated in Shreveport, Louisiana. Filed in 1954, Clarke Terrace was LDF’s first lawsuit challenging discrimination in privately constructed but federally insured housing developments. It sought to enforce the rights of African Americans who purchased homes in a new subdivision only to have nearby white residents sabotage the development. Uncovering Clarke Terrace challenges conventional narratives pigeonholing Motley as an education attorney. It highlights her housing advocacy and demonstrates that this work was pivotal to Motley’s clients, even if forgotten by historians. This analysis powerfully advances appreciation for and understanding of Motley’s civil rights legacy.
2021 ULR 1127 (2021)