Consequential 1978 court case connected ‘Sports Illustrated’ reporter to Constance Baker Motley
Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel
The case that was brought to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in December 1977 seems almost risible now. Melissa Ludtke, then a young journalist for Sports Illustrated, was compelled to sue for the right to practice her chosen profession in the same room and with the same privileges as a man.
“Defendants’ conduct constitutes an unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex ... it deprives plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws secured and guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Ludtke’s attorneys declared in their brief.
To a 21st-century observer, the decree that followed a few weeks later is hardly a surprise: Ludtke was to be granted the same access as her male counterparts to a location from which she previously had been barred.
But the 1978 decision in that case was far from mundane because the workplace in question was the home team’s clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, the plaintiff was a writer for Sports Illustrated, and the judge who overturned tradition was the redoubtable Constance Baker Motley.
On Jan. 31 in New York City, the United States Postal Service will issue a nondenominated (68¢) forever commemorative postage stamp, the 47th in the Black Heritage series, honoring Motley and her standing as the first African American woman to serve as a federal court judge and the first to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, among a long register of other landmark achievements during the Civil Rights era.
[Editor’s note: For more details about the new Constance Baker Motley stamp, see the story in the Jan. 29 issue of Linn’s Stamp News.]
A first-day ceremony will be held at a recreation center in Manhattan named for the pioneering jurist. A stretch of Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem — just outside the elegant apartment building where her neighbors included Duke Ellington, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Lena Horne and Thurgood Marshall — has been named for Motley as well.
Marshall, of course, is the legal paragon with whom a young Motley partnered to write the brief for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that overturned segregation in the nation’s schools.
But to Ludtke, the journalist whose denial of access to the New York Yankees’ dressing room during the 1977 World Series solely because of her sex was the basis of the aforementioned case, the legacy of Motley is deeply personal.
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