Constance Baker Motley to be honored on 47th Black Heritage stamp Jan. 31 in New York City
By Charles Snee
In a consequential 1978 case, Judge Constance Baker Motley of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that Melissa Ludtke, then a reporter for Sports Illustrated, could not be excluded from the locker room of the New York Yankees baseball team in the normal performance of her duties.
Motley (1921-2005) was the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge. She also blazed a trail for other aspiring female jurists when she became the first Black woman to have argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Motley would go on to win nine of the 10 cases that she argued before the nation’s highest court.
For these and numerous other accomplishments, Motley will be celebrated on the 47th stamp in the U.S. Postal Service’s long-running Black Heritage series.
An official first-day ceremony for the nondenominated (68¢) commemorative forever stamp picturing Motley will be held Jan. 31 at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time at the Constance Baker Motley Recreation Center, 348 E. 54th St., in New York City.
Collectors desiring to attend the ceremony should register online in advance with the Postal Service. Each attendee may invite a maximum of four guests, the USPS said.
Serving as the dedicating official will be Anton Hajjar, a member of the Postal Service’s board of governors.
The Postal Service tapped Banknote Corporation of America in Browns Summit, N.C., one of its two contract printers, to produce 35 million Constance Baker Motley stamps in panes of 20 using offset lithography, a surface printing technique.
Technical details published in the Dec. 28, 2023, issue of the Postal Bulletin state that the pane will have a header reading, “Black Heritage, Celebrating Constance Baker Motley, 47th in a Series.”
Microprinting, most likely “USPS,” will appear somewhere in the design as a means to thwart counterfeiting. However, many recent U.S. stamps that have been counterfeited have microprinting.
Derry Noyes, an art director for the Postal Service, teamed up with Atlanta, Ga., artist Charly Palmer to design the new stamp honoring Motley.
Palmer’s vibrantly colored portrait of Motley is based on an Associated Press photograph taken in 1964 in New York City, the USPS said.
His website provides a captivating summary of his approach to his art.
“In every painting, he bears witness of African ancestry and contemporary experiences — rhythmic, visual stories that shifts [sic] what each viewer believes to see — should one dare to look deeply,” the website said.
“Palmer has an innate awareness of documenting the intricacies of Blackness with such depth, patterns, symbols, and textures that it is easy to forget that he begins with a blank canvas.
“The ways in which he applies acrylic is somewhat its own aesthetic that transcends where one’s thought begins and ends.”
A number of the elements in Palmer’s painting — such as the flowers in the foreground, the button on her dress, and the patterned circles around her head — have personal significance.
“The flowers have been a trademark for the past few years by honoring my mother,” Palmer told Linn’s Stamp News.
“Baker Motley had a carnation on the side of her in the original photo, I just enlarged and exaggerated it,” he said. “The patterned circles wreathing her head [signify] that I believe all black women are queens.”
“I’m a lover of history and I am thrilled that the United States is honoring such a special person to our history,” Palmer said.
Noyes shared with Linn’s some of the more insightful moments during her collaboration with Palmer that influenced the final design of the stamp.
“I was impressed with Charly’s fresh interpretation and vibrant, colorful, strong portrait of Constance Baker Motley,” Noyes said. “It exudes her strength, character, and beauty.”
“My job was to make the type work well with his beautiful painting without overpowering it, and be legible at stamp size,” she said. “I think we came up with a good solution.”
By the time Motley issued her ruling in the 1978 case Ludtke v. Kuhn, she had an impressive list of accomplishments to her credit and had earned her place as a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights movement.
She concluded her ruling in that case thus: “An injunction will therefore issue enjoining defendants from enforcing the policy of total exclusion of accredited women sports reporters from the locker rooms of the clubhouses at Yankee Stadium and requiring them to adopt … alternative means of preserving player privacy.”
[Editor’s note: Delivering the Mail columnist Allen Abel’s portrait of Ludtke and her connection to Motley appears in the Jan. 29 issue of Linn’s.]
Motley was born Sept. 14, 1921, in New Haven, Conn., to Rachel Huggins and McCullough Alva Baker, both immigrants from the West Indies.
Her modest working-class background kept higher education out of reach until Clarence Blakeslee, a New Haven philanthropist, heard her speak at a community center. When Blakeslee learned of her aspiration to become a lawyer, he offered to finance her education.
She went on to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1946. That same year, she married Joel Wilson Motley, a successful broker of insurance and real estate.
Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (himself the subject of a 37¢ Black Heritage stamp issued in 2003 [Scott 3746]) hired Motley as a member of the NAACP’s legal staff.
According to a biography of Motley on the Columbia University website, “From 1945 to 1964, Judge Motley worked on all of the major school segregation cases supported by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“She wrote the legal brief for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case and helped strategize on other important legal precedents. Among the cases in which she played a prominent role were ...
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