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Carter, Robert L.

Robert L. Carter


Judge, civil rights activist

Robert L. Carter was stung by the treatment he suffered as a young black man, but the pain was an incentive, not a discouragement. Carter grew up to be one of the key architects in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Despite the achievements made in civil rights in the 50 years since that landmark ruling, Carter told the New York Times, "I am not satisfied. This country is still dedicated to white supremacy, and I am black."

Prompted to Activism by Pool Ban

Carter was born on March 11, 1917 in Careyville, Florida. His parents moved to New Jersey with his seven sisters and brothers when Robert was a baby, and Carter's father died soon after. His mother worked as a maid to put her children through school. Carter grew up far from the segregated South and was an exceptional student at his school in East Orange, New Jerseyhe skipped two grades to graduate early. Nevertheless, he was barred from his school's all-white boys' swim team.

At the time, the school's swimming pool was drained and cleaned after black students used it. Carter's sense of injustice was riled. Early in his senior year, armed with a newspaper article detailing the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that prohibited public schools from banning blacks from school facilities, Carter burst into a "whites only" swim practice and demanded to be included. The coach tried threats, then pleas, but Carter was not to be deterred. For the rest of the school year he was allowed to join the white students in the pool. It was a lonely victory. The white students avoided him, and as he could not swim, he hovered alone at the shallow end of the pool. "None of the other black students joined me," Carter recalled in a 1996 speech to the Federal Bar Council recorded in Vital Speeches of the Day. "In view of the school's intimidating environment, that should not surprise." Carter credited that early experience as crucial in his decision to become a civil rights activist and lawyer.

At the age of 16, Carter landed a scholarship to Lincoln University. He graduated magna cum laude with a political science degree in 1937. Three years later he earned a law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. He finished his studies with a master's in law from Columbia University in 1941. By that time World War II was on, and upon graduation Carter was promptly drafted as an officer into the then-segregated Air Force. He was greeted by a captain who routinely told well-schooled black recruits that he did not believe in "education for niggers" and warned them against "getting uppity," Carter recalled to the Federal Bar Council. Again his anger rose. Just as he had tried to integrate his high school swimming pool, young Lieutenant Carter tried to make the Air Force give its black officers the same privileges as whites. He barely escaped with an honorable discharge. The "raw, vicious, and pervasive" racism Carter experienced during his military service "made a militant of me," Carter said to the Federal Bar Council. "It instilled in me a fierce determination to fight against racism with all my intellectual and physical strength."

Forged Legal Fighting for Civil Rights

The fight for equal treatment for black Americans had remained on the back burner throughout World War II, but African-American soldiers who had fought for American ideals were not willing to settle back into second-class citizenship when they returned home. The civil rights movement was fueled in part by these veterans. Carter was at its forefront, and his career took off as the movement did.

In 1944 Carter joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund as a legal assistant to the famed civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall. Marshall would later become the first African American appointed as a justice on the United States Supreme Court. Though the two men would make history together in Brown vs. the Board of Education, they never became close. "I don't recall that Thurgood and I ever developed a personal friendship," Carter told the New York Times. Many civil rights historians point out that Carter was as vital to the Brown case as Marshall, yet had never received due credit. Carter shrugged those claims off, telling the New York Times, "I'm not one of those people to toot my horn well." He also pointed out the positive working relationship they shared. "Thurgood always wanted me to go for the outer edges of the law," Carter told the Boston Herald. "He kept me out of politics. But he let me have my say. He wouldn't let anyone shut me off. So if I stood up and argued, he would back me up." Carter was also proud to receive the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

Carter served with the NAACP from 1944 until 1968. During that time he tried cases in every state of the former southern Confederacy. He won 21 of the 22 cases he presented before the U.S. Supreme Court. He helped defeat racism in colleges, labor unions, voting laws, housing, and hiring. According to a newsletter of the Organization of American Historians, Carter was a model for black youngsters who may never have seen an educated African-American professional stand up to white authority.

Laid Groundwork for Brown v. the Board of Education

Carter's crowning achievement was masterminding the strategy behind Brown vs. the Board of Education. It was Carter's idea to use social science and psychology to prove that state-sponsored separation of black and white children did terrible harm to black youngsters. Carter used dolls to illustrate his point, pointing to studies that revealed that little black girls chose to play with white dolls over black dolls. Carter's argument drew skepticism from NAACP colleagues; however, Carter won them over. "My argument was real simple," Carter recalled to the Boston Herald. He asked them, "'Do you have anything better?'" Carter's dolls worked and history was made. "Judge Carter's goading and pivotal role in Brown vs. the Board of Education serve to demonstrate his tremendous and long-lasting impact in the fight to bring equality to school children and poor people of all colors throughout this country," Kweisi Mfume, former president of the NAACP, said in an article on the NAACP Web site.

At a Glance...

Born on March 11, 1917, in Careyville, FL; married Gloria Pamela Spencer (deceased); children: John, David. Education : Lincoln University, BA, political science, 1937; Howard University, JD, 1940; Columbia University, LLM, 1941. Military Service : Army Air Corps, second-lieutenant, 1941-44.

Career: NAACP Legal Defense Fund, New York, NY, assistant special counsel, 1944-56; NAACP Legal Defense Fund, New York, NY, general counsel, 1956-68; Poletti, Freidin, Prashker, Feldman and Gartner, New York, NY, senior partner, 1969-72; US District Court, Southern District of New York, federal judge 1972.

Memberships: World Assembly on Human Rights, delegate, 1968; New York City Mayor's Judiciary Committee, 1968-72; National Conference of Black Lawyers, co-chairman, 1968-82; National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, board member; American Civil Liberties, board member.

Awards: Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1995; Federal Bar Council, Emory Bucknor Medal for Outstanding Public Service, 1995; Harvard Law School, Medal of Freedom, 2000; NAACP, Spingarn Medal, 2004; NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award, 2004.

Addresses: Office United States Courthouse, 500 Pearl Street, Room 2220, New York, NY 10007-1312.

After Thurgood Marshall joined the United States judiciary in 1956, Carter assumed the role of head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Carter's important cases during that time included a 1958 Alabama ruling that protected the NAACP membership lists from publicationremoving a subtle weapon employers and governments used against black activists. Carter also sued and argued to strike down laws that segregated colleges and carved-up voting districts according to race. Carter's office also oversaw many cases that stemmed directly from Brown. "We had a whole new world of litigation ahead of us," one of Carter's NAACP colleagues told the New York Times. "Shortly after the [Brown ] decision we represented students who sat in at North Carolina lunch counters, an action that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending segregation in businesses that engaged in interstate commerce. It was another huge development: the ability of blacks to eat in local restaurants in the south, to stay in hotels."

In a move reminiscent of his youthful activism, Carter decided to personally test the implications of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He and a group of African-American activists spent a week traveling through Mississippi in January of 1965, desegregating restaurants, hotels, and other public facilities previously delineated by "White Only" and "Colored" signs. "We had only one scary incident in the infamous town of Philadelphia," Carter recalled in his Federal Bar Council speech. "When we left an establishment we were testing, white men not looking too friendly and carrying guns were lined up on each side of the path we had to traverse to get to our vehicle. You can be sure I was frightened, but fortunately, the men apparently were there only to try to intimidate us by their presence and not to do any physical harm." Carter concluded, "The Mississippi exercise was an exhilarating experience because it seemed to us that if the Civil Rights Act could effect such a drastic change in Mississippi, success was assured nationwide."

Moved from the Trenches to the Bench

Carter left the NAACP in 1968 for a try at teaching and practicing labor law with a private firm, but in 1972 he re-entered public service when President Richard Nixon appointed him a federal judge in New York City. He continued his pioneeringoften controversialwork in interpreting the rights of individuals. In 1986 he made headlines when he cited all 350 of the country's Roman Catholic bishops for contempt of court, fining them $100,000 per day until they complied with a court order demanding documentation of their anti-abortion politicking.

In 1986 Carter reached senior judge status. Through the years he married and was widowed, raised two children, taught law at a long list of colleges, was a United States delegate to United Nations conferences, and co-founded the National Conference of Black Lawyers. He wrote dozens of articles and studies on discrimination and race in America and had plans to complete an autobiography. In 1995 President Bill Clinton awarded Carter the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor.

In 2004, on the 50th anniversary of Brown, Carter was widely celebrated, receiving several prestigious awards and giving dozens of interviews. Despite the accolades, the disappointment over what he saw as the lack of progress made by black Americans was evident. "Black children aren't getting equal education in the cities," he told the New York Times. "The schools that are 100 percent black are still as bad as they were before Brown." In an interview with the Boston Herald he blamed part of the problem the very thing that he and so many civil rights activists had fought so hard to obtainequal opportunity. He believed that blacks had simply become too comfortable. "We can't have faith in any white institutions," he warned. "We have to push on our own. No one wants to give up privilege. We have to be on the edge, complaining, pushing, not accepting." Carter felt that the overwhelming number of young blacks in the prison, the loss of Affirmative Action programs, and schools still effectively segregated by the urban-suburban divide were all a result of middle-class black complacency. But as a man who not only witnessed, but helped orchestrate, the greatest changes American society had lived through, he still held out hope. "In the United States, we make progress in two or three steps, then we step back," he told the New York Times. And blacks are more militant now and will not accept second-class citizenship as before."



Vital Speeches of the Day, March 1, 1996, p290.


Boston Herald, August 17, 2004.

Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, August 31, 2001.

New York Times, May 5, 2004.

Time, May 19, 1986.


"NAACP Awards 2004 Spingarn Medal too Judge Robert L. Carter," NAACP, (February 25, 2005).

"Judge Carter and the Brown Decision," Organization of American Historians, (February 25, 2005).

Candace LaBalle

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