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The Honorable Robert L. Carter

Born on March 11, 1917, in Careyville, Florida, Robert L. Carter moved north to Newark, New Jersey, as an infant, with his mother. Carter's childhood was beset by family tragedy. He lost three siblings and his father, all during his early childhood years. Studious and introspective, Carter excelled in school, skipping two grades and graduating from high school at age 16. He received a scholarship that enabled him to attend Lincoln University, and upon receiving his A.B. in Political Science, was offered a scholarship to Howard University's School of Law.

After obtaining his Masters in Law from Columbia University, Carter was drafted into the armed forces. The pervasive racial prejudice he encountered affected him deeply, and shortly after he ended his tour of duty, he was hired as an assistant to NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall. Carter would stay on as a lawyer for the NAACP for the next 24 years. During his tenure, he argued 22 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court (including Brown v. Board of Education (1954)) and won 21.

After Brown v. Board of Education, many southern states sought to stem the tide of desegregation by aggressively intimidating the organization most responsible, the NAACP. Attempting to incapacitate the NAACP, southern states passed legislation that required the organization to make its membership lists public, believing that this would intimidate and cow NAACP supporters. In a series of cases, beginning with NAACP v. Alabama (1958), Carter argued successfully that such legislation violated the NAACP's first amendment right to free speech, because it was clearly intended to intimidate people. In each instance, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Carter and the NAACP; the membership maintained its anonymity; and the NAACP remained a powerful force for desegregation in the South.

After leaving the NAACP in 1968, Carter spent several years at a private law firm before he was appointed as a U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York in 1972. He held adjunct faculty positions at the University of Michigan and New York University law schools and at Yale University graduate school. Carter was an outspoken advocate of equal rights, and made headlines when he decried the rampant racial prejudice plaguing the criminal justice system.

Over his lengthy and esteemed career, Judge Carter was the recipient of many awards, honors and degrees. He sat on dozens of boards, committees and task forces and published numerous articles.

Carter passed away on January 3, 2012 at age 94.

Accession Number

A2001.012

Sex

Male

Interview Date

5/22/2001

Last Name

Carter

Maker Category
Middle Name

L.

Occupation
Organizations
First Name

Robert

Birth City, State, Country

Careyville

HM ID

CAR01

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Florida

Favorite Vacation Destination

Caribbean

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date

3/11/1917

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Fish

Death Date

1/3/2012

Short Description

Federal judge and lawyer The Honorable Robert L. Carter (1917 - 2012 ) began his law career as an assistant to Thurgood Marshall. Later, Carter became a lawyer for the NAACP for twenty-four years. During his tenure, he argued twenty-two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education, and won twenty-one. Carter was appointed as a U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York in 1972.

Employment

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

United States District Court, Southern District of New York

University of Michigan Law School

New York University Law School

Yale Law School

Favorite Color

Tan

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Robert Carter interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Robert Carter's favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Robert Carter describes his family's background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Robert Carter talks about memories of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Robert Carter talks about his childhood school days

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Robert Carter describes his encounter with a racist teacher in grade school

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Robert Carter describes his attitude toward education as a young person

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Robert Carter talks about his experience at Lincoln University

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Robert Carter talks about studying law at Howard University

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Robert Carter talks about his experience in the military

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Robert Carter talks about dealing with racism in the U.S. Army

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Robert Carter talks about working on U.S. Supreme Court cases with Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP.

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Robert Carter describes the working environment of the NAACP in the 1950s and 1960s

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Robert Carter describes how the NAACP became involved with 'Brown v. Board of Education'

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Robert Carter talks about the strategy behind the NAACP's civil rights cases

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Robert Carter describes Thurgood Marshall as a colleague

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Robert Carter talks about the success he and the NAACP had in U.S. Supreme Court civil rights cases

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Robert Carter explains why he left the NAACP

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Robert Carter talks about the start of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Robert Carter explains the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Robert Carter reflects on his law career

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Robert Carter assesses racial discrimination in the U.S.

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Robert Carter evaluates the successes of the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Robert Carter addresses issues facing the African American community

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Robert Carter evaluates the reparations movement

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Robert Carter considers his legacy

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$2

DAStory

4$2

DATitle
Robert Carter describes how the NAACP became involved with 'Brown v. Board of Education'
Robert Carter talks about working on U.S. Supreme Court cases with Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP.
Transcript
And now with 'Brown [v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas,' 1954], that case was the right case at the right time, sir, right?$$(Nods).$$This, it had, but how did you as the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons]. find out about, you know, Lucille Brown? I mean did they come to the NAACP. I'm just--$$Well, what we were doing at the time, this is what, this is what the states would call barristering, but we would announce to the International Office Group that we were interested in certain kinds of cases. And our local branches would then indicate that they had somebody in these cases. And the issue, when we announced, I think in 1950, this is after 'Sweat [v. Painter'], the Texas case in law school, and 'McLaurin [v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education,' 1950] that we were going to go up for the classes, I mean for the public school. And we had a case that ame from Clarington County, South Carolina, and then a group of lawyers called us about a case in Kansas, and that's the Brown, that was the Brown, and what would happen would be that I go down there, get the papers, file the papers in court, and go down with a local lawyer, in terms of the case and try it, and that's what we, that's what we did in Clarington County and Brown and in the Kansas case. So, that's how, that's how, that's how it operated, and that's what the states were very concerned about. They called us barristering because we would announce that, and what we, but you know, at that time, it was not so much in Kansas but certainly South Carolina, you had to make sure that people understood what they were into, and I'd go down and talk to them and tell them, you know, what they'd have to face. They had all these people coming up and I was sure they were gonna get pressure put on them, they might lose their jobs and so forth, and I think I only had, maybe one or two people backed out. They was really amazing.$$People were, it was clear that they wanted to see change and they were willing to sort of put their lives on the line?$$Yeah.$And so, when you get out [of military service], what are your, because the war's [World War II] still going on at the time you get out, yeah, so you get out and what do you do then at that point.$$I take the [New York State] Bar [Examination].$$Here in New York?$$Here in New York. And then I start--while I'm waiting for the Bar to start looking for a job, and Thurgood [Marshall] was looking for an assistant, and I interviewed, and that was my job.$$Oh, that's fabulous. Okay. Okay. So, that started a very, that was a wonderful sort of thing that happened?$$Yeah.$$So, had you had any exposure to Thurgood Marshall up until that point?$$No. I didn't know him. I was recommended out to him by Bill [William Henry] Hastie, and I was looking for a job, and I think that, I, you know--memory is, never rely on the recollection of old men--but I think that Hastie called me and told me that Marshall was looking for an assistant and that I go over there on my interview. And it's my impression that, when I came in I was hired. I don't think I was going to have any problem. But I think he told me either--yeah, he told me before I left, I was hired or a couple of days later, but anyway, I knew I had a job.$$And then so you, you worked for the, this is with NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]? And you worked there for how many years?$$I think '44 [1944] to '68 [1968].$$To sixty--or fifty--.$$'68 [1968].$$Oh, I see, okay. I see. But let's talk about the types of cases that you worked on. Well, I know the main one was 'Brown v. Board of Education' [1954], but it says that you worked, and I do want to talk about that, but it said that you actually did twenty-two cases, argued twenty-two in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.$$(Nods).$$What type, were these all cases sort of leading up to the types of cases that would lead up to 'Brown v. Board'?$$No. The only case I think that I argued in the Supreme Court that was leading up to 'Brown' was the case from Oklahoma, 'McLaurin [v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education,' 1950], that was my first case. And then all my other cases came after 'Brown'. And many of them that were involved were First Amendment cases. What had happened was that after 'Brown,' the southern states began to want to find ways to make sure the NAACP couldn't function, because its theory was that they if they disable the NAACP, that there wouldn't be any problem. They thought this was outside agitation and that their local people are happy with being subservient and so forth and so on. And if they filed the NAACP, they couldn't do it. So, what they were trying to do, they had--they were trying to get our membership list and, you know, expose them and therefore, the people would be exposed, in terms of their jobs. They also tried to--or they did pass laws making, directed to the NAACP's legal activity, making it illegal by (unclear) and so forth. So that I spent a number of--time in the Supreme Court arguing that our membership list was, had to be anonymous in order for us to exercise our right to First Amendment rights and that we had the right to petition and NAACP register (unclear). And that teachers and so forth should not be required to reveal their membership in the NAACP because otherwise they'd be, they'd be fired, and this was a lot of cases, cases like that. And then there was 'Gomillion v. Lightfoot' [1960], one of the cases I argued, where the--Tuskegee [Alabama] had decided what it was going to do in order to keep control of the city, they gerrymandered all the blacks outside the city. And that went to the Supreme Court, and it was the next step after the court decided that case, because up to that time, they called us a political thicket. They weren't going to decide cases like that in terms of districting and so forth. Once they decided that that case was--that districting was unconstitutional, the next step was the "one man, one vote" cases. So, they made it--people don't, people don't understand how you make those steps.