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Black History Month Spotlight: Charlotte Ray and Constance Motley

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Black History Month celebrates the outstanding people that made great strides in gaining equal treatment and respect for African Americans. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Justice Thurgood Marshall are just a few of the people, be they activists or attorneys, who helped shape the world we live in today. These are men who looked at the world and refused to accept it as it was.

Yet, it was not just men that had an impact on the world; there were powerful women that also shaped the future. In all my years living in the south, the one woman that always gets mentioned is Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks is known for heroically remaining seated on a bus in protest of segregation. While she is undoubtedly the most famous African American woman who took a stand, it is important to realize that she did not stand alone. These women are important to history and to the education of our youth in that they not only show that minorities can have an impact on the world, but reinforce the fact that women are just as capable as men.

For example, Charlotte E. Ray was the first African American woman to become an attorney in the United States. Born January 13, 1850, she was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in March of 1872, and in the following month, she was admitted to practice before the District’s Supreme Court. This made her the first woman to practice and argue a case before the District of Columbia’s Supreme Court. Though her independent practice did not last long, Ms. Ray set a precedent that African American women were as capable as whites and males to practice law. Through her success, she changed history by opening doors for women of all races to practice law.

Constance Baker Motley was born on September 21, 1921. An African American woman, she obtained her law degree in 1946. Ms. Motley was engaged in the Civil Rights movement and the advancement of African Americans, acting as lead trial attorney for various early civil rights cases, visiting Dr. King during his time in jail, and even working as a law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall. She wrote the original complaint for Brown v. Board of Education, and was the first African American woman to argue before the United States Supreme Court, winning her first case there in Meredith v. Fair. She later became the first African American woman to be a State Senator, doing so in New York in 1964. In 1966, she became the first African American woman appointed to the federal bench.  President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to one of the most influential and busy district courts, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, a position she held until her death in 2005.

Rosa Parks, Charlotte Ray, and Constance Motley, though decades apart, prove that African American women can do anything they strive to do. These women stand for the reality that there is no reason one cannot succeed if she pushes herself to the goals she feels are important. That is a fact and lesson that needs to always be passed down to every woman regardless of race. We should live in a world where they say “I can do that” instead of “I want to do that,” and by making sure that the stories of women like Charlotte Ray, Constance Motley, and the hundreds of other women that made a difference are heard.

Guest blog post authored by DeMarcus Williams. DeMarcus Williams serves on the legal support staff of Cory Watson Attorneys and begins law school in the fall of 2016. A Birmingham, Alabama native and lifelong resident of the city, he graduated with honors from Ramsay High School in 2011. He graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biomedical Engineering from the Science and Technology Honors College of the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2015.  DeMarcus has been accepted to law school at Duke University, The University of Alabama, Wake Forest University Cumberland School of Law and Penn State.

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