Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Passing of Judge Robert L. Carter

At Rutgers Law School, everyone wanted to take Constitutional Law with beloved Professor Arthur Kinoy, a fiery advocate for civil rights at a time when this stance was not popular. Professor Kinoy inspired us with "war stories" from his time in the legal trenches, including defending the Rosenbergs and arguing the landmark Dombrowski v. Pfister case before the Supreme Court. Despite all the notoriety that these high-profile cases brought Professor Kinoy, he was probably proudest of his work on civil rights, including defending demonstrators in the segregated South and helping to develop legal strategies to confront racial discrimination in all its forms in the 1950s and 1960s.

Professor Kinoy often talked nostalgically of the NAACP legal team, the mostly African-American attorneys who bravely fought against desegregation in the courts despite threats of disbarment and worse. One of the attorneys he mentioned most often was Robert L. Carter, who died recently. In addition to the obituary from The New York Times which is linked to in this post, two moving tributes to his life and legacy were published in The Nation: a short tribute by Lewis Steel, a civil rights lawyer, and a longer tribute by Patricia Sullivan, an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of South Carolina who is writing a history of the NAACP.

Sullivan describes Carter as "one of the leading civil rights strategists and activists of the twentieth century." After being exposed "to the power of racial stigma and exclusion to stifle the hopes and possibilities of African-Americans and warp social and civic relations," Carter realized that education was the key to the future. After graduating from law school, he joined the NAACP legal staff in 1944. As Sullivan puts it:

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. ... As the lawyers took aim at overturning Plessey [sic] 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.

Carter was appointed by President Nixon to serve as a federal judge for the Southern District of New York in 1972. Reading the obituary of Carter and the two personal tributes made me think about the driving passion of his life--equal educational opportunity, a goal that has still not been achieved in this country and is perhaps farther away than ever. To quote Sullivan again:
For Robert L. Carter ... 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 [sic] chronic national indifference to a problem that has deep roots in the practices and attitudes that Carter spent a life time fighting.

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