Politics and Government

Federal Courts

What African-American woman served the nation as the first black woman federal judge?

Constance Baker Motley (1921–2005), who received national acclaim for her civil rights work, became the first black woman federal judge on January 25, 1966. After receiving President Lyndon B. Johnson’s nomination and Senate confirmation, she became a judge on the United States District Court, the Southern District of New York. She was elected to the New York state senate in 1964, and in 1965 she became president of the Borough of Manhattan. Her appointment as a judge of the Circuit Court of the Southern District of New York made her the highest paid black woman in government. The Connecticut-born jurist received her education at New York and Columbia Universities. Motley worked with the NAACP as legal assistant and associate counsel and won many difficult civil rights cases; her most famous victory was the case of James Meredith against the University of Mississippi. Working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, she and other attorneys represented demonstrators in the sit-in movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and other protesters. Her numerous writings have been published in legal and professional journals.



Eric Holder is the first African American to hold the high office of U.S. attorney general.

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