Robert L. Carter, between 1940 and 1955. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (105.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
When a great man dies who has been your teacher, mentor, dear close friend, and boss when I first became a civil rights lawyer in 1963, the feeling of loss is deep, even if he was 94 years old and had lived a full and extraordinary life. Robert L. Carter was such a man. Along with Thurgood Marshall, he carefully plotted and argued the Supreme Court cases that led to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that signaled the end of Apartheid in the South and open second-class citizenship all over this land.
Along with Marshall, Carter not only argued the Brown case, he won the major Supreme Court victories which prevented the South from undermining the desegregation decision by invoking the Constitution’s free speech protection to bar Alabama and other states from forcing the National Association for Advancement of Colored People to hand over its membership lists and which protected the NAACP’s lawyers from disbarment proceedings for encouraging group litigation to attack segregation. Later in his career, he became a model federal district court judge, who applied all his knowledge and wisdom to the decisions he rendered for over 35 years.
Carter helped to change America, and helped to change me, along with the many black and white lawyers who worked with him and whom he taught that fighting for equal rights entails risk, patience, understanding and placing the cause before yourself. Proud that he was an African-American and that with other African-Americans he had turned the tide of the law, opening up the possibility that this nation could save itself from the stigma of racism, he never let anyone forget that he would not tolerate racial prejudice no matter where it occurred. Those of us who have worked to fight prejudice are his children. We will never see the likes of him again.