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Champions of Justice

Champions of Justice: The Honorable Constance Baker Motley and the Honorable Damon J. Keith

Each year, tens of thousands of visitors from around the world walk through the entrance of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and are immediately drawn to the Ring of Genealogy with its engraved gold-plated names and marble design on the floor of the Museum's Ford Freedom Rotunda. Soon visitors will also see the name of Judge Constance Baker Motley. On occasion, the tour guides will inform many of them, particularly school-age children, why her name is in this place for only those who are held in the highest esteem in the annals of African American History.

On Tuesday May 17, 2011, at 6 pm, over 300 distinguished guests will gather at the Charles H. Wright Museum for the annual and stately Ford Freedom Awards Gala that will posthumously honor Judge Constance Baker Motley as a Champion of Justice. The only female lawyer as part of the legendary NAACP Legal Defense Fund team, Constance Baker Motley, as a young law clerk under the tutelage of Thurgood Marshall, assisted in writing the briefs for the historic 1954 Brown v. Board case. After Brown, the New York Times reported that she argued nearly every important Civil Rights case for two decades before becoming appointed the first black woman to serve as a federal district judge.

Also on this evening, the Honorable Damon J. Keith will be recognized as the living person who best exemplifies the character, stature, and values of the principal honoree. Both Judges Baker Motley's and Keith's contributions and life will be presented in a special program in the Museum's theater, an occasion not to be missed, especially by those in the legal and Civil Rights community.

The Ford Motor Company and Charles H. Wright Museum honor both Judges Baker Motley and Keith because they are an essential part of our Nation's quest to realize its most cherished ideals – liberty, freedom, and equality. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence, nearly a quarter of the population were enslaved, and women had no legal standing as citizens in this nation. Almost immediately, courageous men and women, mostly white Quakers and free African Americans, voiced their opposition against the actions of a society that declared itself a free nation while enslaving a significant part of its population. Their constant and relentless agitation eventually forced the nation to face its Constitutional contradictions. This brought forth a great Civil War that resulted in the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, the 14th Amendment, providing equal protection to all its citizens, including African Americans, and the 15th Amendment, providing African American men the right to vote.

Regrettably, even with the passage of these legal statutes, the human sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives and a devastated South after the Civil War, African Americans found themselves in a segregated and oppressive society. In 1896, the nation's highest court refused to enforce the principle of equality clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence and now part of the United States Constitution.

In response, in the early part of the 20th Century, courageous men and women again rose up to contest the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessey v. Ferguson, finding mandatory racial segregation constitutional. Mordecai Johnson, President of Howard University, appointed Charles Hamilton Houston Dean of the Howard University Law School with a mandate to create a law school to educate lawyers who would contest this injustice. Within a few years, Houston transformed Howard's law school from an unaccredited night school to an accredited day school that attracted some of the brightest African American minds in the nation, including Thurgood Marshall. A few years later, Houston became the chief legal strategist for the NAACP and devised the legal strategy to overturn the Plessey v. Ferguson decision that nullified the enforcement of the 14th Amendment.

Over the next 20 years, Houston and Marshall, along with a team of lawyers, began to win a series of legal cases that set the stage for reversing the Plessey decision and enforcement of the 14th Amendment. Judges Baker Motley's and Keith's life work is a continuation of both these earlier and more recent historical figures who fought for equality under the law, an extension of equal rights to all citizens regardless of their race, social stature, or gender.

Upon graduation in 1943 from New York University, Constance Baker Motley entered Columbia Law School and began work as a volunteer for the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund headed by Mr. Marshall. After graduation in 1946 from law school, she began to work full time for the Legal Defense Fund, fighting against restrictive covenants that barred blacks from white neighborhoods. In the early 1950s, she assisted in writing the brief for Brown v. Board of Education; after the great Brown victory, she became the lead attorney for many of the Civil Rights cases in the South during the tumultuous 1960s, including the admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962.

According to The New York Times, Baker Motley once said that her greatest professional satisfaction came with the reinstatement of 1,100 black children in Birmingham, Alabama who had been expelled for taking part in street demonstrations in the spring of 1963. She argued 10 historic integration cases before the United States Supreme Court and won nine of them. She prevailed in cases that ended segregation in Memphis restaurants and at whites-only lunch counters in the South. She fought for Martin Luther King's right to march in Albany, Georgia. She represented blacks seeking admission to the Universities of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, as well as Clemson College in South Carolina. Her distinguished legal career culminated with her appointment to federal bench. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her as a United States District Court judge for the Southern District of New York, despite opposition from Southern senators, and she became a chief judge of the District in 1982 and senior judge in 1986.

As Constance Baker Motley was starting law school, Damon Keith was being drafted into the military upon his graduation from West Virginia State College. Like Charles Houston who had experienced harsh and intense racism and degradation while serving his country, in 1945, Judge Keith came back to civilian life with a dedication to the cause of civil rights and entered Howard University Law School. At Howard, he heard prominent black attorneys such as Thurgood Marshall practice their Supreme Court arguments before the students. It was at Howard that Keith became convinced that the law was the best way to affect social change. With a legal career spanning seven decades, including five on the bench as a federal judge, Judge Keith has carried out the mandate for law as a tool for social change that he learned at Howard Law. Born on the Fourth of July, the grandson of slaves, Judge Keith has become a guardian for the principles in the Declaration of Independence.

As an attorney, he was the chair of the Detroit Housing Authority, chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, and very active in promoting civil rights in Michigan. He was one of the key pioneers in the Detroit branch of the NAACP, along with his good friend Dr. Arthur Johnson, and helped found that organization's annual Freedom Fund Dinner.

As a distinguished jurist, Judge Keith has never cowered in the face of controversy and has steadfastly guarded our Constitution. Like Constance Baker Motley before him, he embraces with profound fidelity the principles of equality, justice, and fairness. Judge Keith has been a conduit for ensuring that the legal battles such as those won by Constance Baker Motley would be enforced. As a judge, he has declared policies that promote unequal access to education, forced residential segregation in the name of "urban renewal," and unfair hiring practices that discriminate against minorities, unconstitutional in a variety of his legal decisions. Judge Keith has also been a great civil libertarian finding that no one is above the law. He refused to bow to the unconstitutional demands of Presidents Nixon and George W. Bush in their attempts to ignore the Constitution in the name of "national security." In Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, Judge Keith famously declared, "democracies die behind closed doors." He has come to embody the very essence of the principles that motivated Constance Baker Motley to become a pioneer for civil rights causes.

You have the opportunity to be part of history by joining many others who will witness the dedication of Judge Constance Baker Motley's name to the Charles H. Wright Museum's Ring of Genealogy on May 17, 2011, the same date in 1954 that the United States Supreme Court handed down a unanimous (9–0) decision stating that "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. This ruling paved the way for integration and the modern Civil Rights Movement.