"Occupy schools,” a friend of mine exclaimed as the movement gathered steam and numbers this past fall. I thought immediately of Robert Carter, knowing that such an idea would appeal to him.
For Robert L. Carter, one of the leading civil rights strategists and activists of the twentieth century, the fight for equal, quality public education was foundational to the movement to liberate this country from the blight of racism and its crippling legacies. The abysmal state of public schools, the racial inequality that continues to define all measures of educational opportunity and the much discussed “school to prison” pipeline reflects chronic national indifference to a problem that has deep roots in the practices and attitudes that Carter spent a life time fighting.
Bob Carter’s long and illustrious journey tells much about the workings of the color line in America and what it took to edge this country forward in its ongoing struggle with race. As a child of the Great Migration, he faced the tightening grip of segregation in northern public schools. He was the first to integrate the swimming pool at his high school in East Orange, New Jersey following a 1933 State Supreme Court ruling barring the practice of limiting black student access to the facility (even though he could not swim.) The school closed the pool.
A desire for education and strong family and community support shielded him from the worst abuses of racial caste, while his personal experiences exposed him to the power of racial stigma and exclusion to stifle the hopes and possibilities of African-Americans and warp social and civic relations. Through his studies at Lincoln University, Howard Law School and Columbia University, Carter immersed himself in intellectual pursuits and probably would have become a legal scholar, specializing in the First Amendment. But service in the segregated Armed Forces set his life’s course. “It made a militant of me,” he recalled, “and instilled in me a fierce determination to fight against racism with all my intellectual and physical strength.”
He joined the NAACP legal staff in 1944, and became a key strategist in the postwar legal insurgency that challenged racial discrimination in all of its manifestations: housing, schooling, voting, employment, and the justice system. For Carter and the handful of attorneys working with Thurgood Marshall, all of whom spent much of their time in the field, the future rested primarily on freeing black children from the crushing effects of substandard school conditions and societal indifference to history’s long reach. Recalling the first strategy meeting he organized in Atlanta in 1946, Carter wrote about the feeling of hope and pride he felt, sitting around a table with black lawyers, plotting “what could and should be done with our legal talent to better the lot of black children.” As the lawyers took aim at overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, it was Carter whose research of social science literature found the legal hook for proving what any sober observer knew to be true: segregated schools were inherently unequal.
In the aftermath of the 1954 Brown ruling, Carter, as NAACP General Counsel, brought the battle for equal education North, where in the decades since he was a high school student, black migration had transformed the nation’s racial demography and northern whites had institutionalized widespread segregated and under-resourced schools. Working with communities across the country during the 1960s, Carter and his team mounted a broad-based effort through the courts, community organizing, and political work to secure equal education: in Boston, this culminated with federal court ordered bussing; in Ocean Hill/Brownsville in Brooklyn, the campaign for community control; and in Detroit, the ultimately unsuccessful fight to implement a busing plan across county lines.
Decades of racial segregation, fierce white resistance to change, and the uncertain reach of Brown tested the faith and creativity of these dedicated souls at a time of growing white backlash, increasing judicial conservatism, and a shifting of “blame” for urban despair and violence, signaled by the infamous Moynihan report on the black family.
In the years since, Bob Carter never rested – he remained in perpetual battle mode. He did not make a fetish of integration, though like W.E.B. Du Bois and others, he believed racial integration in its transformative sense was key to a healthy democracy. He continued to speak out for and fight for equal educational opportunity, however it might be advanced. He himself was living proof of the essential power of education for giving young people a chance to survive a racially toxic society, and enlist in the fight for change.
I was with Bob and a small group of friends the night Barack Obama was elected president. A tear ran down his cheek when victory was announced. Two years later, at the end of a long oral history interview for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I asked the judge how he viewed the election of America’s first black president in relationship to the work he had done. He agreed that it was the fruit of the long battles against racial barriers to which he had devoted most of his life. But then he added that he did not do what he did to elect a black man president. “What I hoped to achieve,” he explained, “was equal educational opportunity, in fact, for all African-American children. This was the primary purpose of Brown. While it has not yet been realized, it remains the key to achieving racial equality and justice in the United States.”
His work is done. The challenges remain. For those who would carry on, it will take all of our intellectual and physical strength, joined with the kind of creative effort that distinguished Robert Carter’s long life. Occupy and then…