“As I take the measure of my life and experience, it is, at a personal level, a story of struggle and triumph. With the support of family and community, I overcame the limits of racial exclusion, discrimination, and poverty to become a leading civil rights lawyer and ultimately a federal judge. Brown v. Board sits at the center of my career and of what has been a lifelong struggle against racial inequities and injustice. My efforts and achievements have been celebrated in recent years with countless awards and honorary degrees. While this has been very gratifying, for me these have also been occasions for setting our sights on what remains to be done to rid this country of the vestiges of white supremacy.”
– Bob Carter
From A Matter Of Law: A Memoir Of Struggle In The Cause Of Equal Rights
The struggle towards racial equality in America has been long and difficult. And by no means is it over. Resistance to racial change was far more determined than we care to remember and far more insidious than most of us do remember. The achievements of that struggle are enormously impressive, but hardly conclusive. The changes we celebrate all year, and during Black History Month, were by no means inevitable. But change came. Change came about through indefatigable, persistent, pained, and determined efforts. And no one deserves more credit than Robert Carter and our LDF founders. Bob Carter served a pivotal role in developing the strategy for Brown v. Board of Education and many of LDF’s other landmark cases.
Robert L. Carter was born on March 11, 1917, in Careyville, Florida. As an infant, his mother relocated to Newark, New Jersey, where he was raised. Bob attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania on a scholarship and earned his bachelor’s degree in political science. He then matriculated into Howard University School of Law, where he studied under Charles Hamilton Houston and William Hasties, before earning his L.L.M. from Columbia Law School in 1941.
That same year, Bob was drafted into the military; but the racial prejudice he experienced there compelled him to join LDF. After his release from the army in 1944, Carter became a legal assistant to Thurgood Marshall, and the following year he became an assistant special counsel. Carter served as lead attorney in the Topeka school desegregation case, one of the five cases which were consolidated to form Brown. Bob served as one of the lead attorneys on Sweatt v. Painter and Brown, as well as many other cases.
In 1972, President Nixon appointed him as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He served on that bench for nearly 40 years with great distinction. Judge Carter held adjunct faculty positions at the University of Michigan and New York University Law Schools, as well as in Yale University’s graduate school. Bob won an unprecedented 21 of the 22 cases that he argued before the Supreme Court. The cases appear in every constitutional law textbook and their names announce the death of a racial order that disgraced this nation. Every case was a death struggle that pitted what America was against what America should be.
As co-founder of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, Carter remained an outspoken civil rights champion and activist, for which he has received many awards, honors, and degrees, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1995 and the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. In 2002, Yale Law School awarded Bob with an honorary degree.
Bob was uncompromising in his commitment to the struggle. Bob constantly taught us that progress for some should never serve as an excuse for failing to lift our voices and our hands to help those who had been disadvantaged.