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Robert Lee Carter

Further Readings

Robert Lee Carter is a federal district court judge who, as counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), played a pivotal role in the SCHOOL DESEGREGATION cases of the 1950s. Carter argued BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Carter was born March 11, 1917, in Careyville, Florida. As a child he moved to New Jersey, where he attended public schools in Newark and East Orange. He received his bachelor of arts degree from Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, in 1937, then went on to earn a bachelor of laws degree from Howard University Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 1940. He also earned a master of laws degree from Columbia University in 1941.

With WORLD WAR II heating up, Carter entered the Army Air Force where he encountered racism and SEGREGATION. During his time in the army he pressed charges against two white soldiers who had harassed him with racial slurs. He also refused to live off base as black soldiers were required to do. Because of his outspoken defiance of segregation he was transferred to a different base. Later he successfully defended a black soldier charged with raping a white woman. In retaliation for his participation in the case he was given an administrative discharge, which is neither honorable nor dishonorable and leaves the recipient open to being drafted. He enlisted the help of his mentor and former law professor, WILLIAM H. HASTIE, who would later become the first African American to sit as a lifetime federal judge outside the Virgin Islands. Hastie represented Carter in a petition before the discharge review board, which finally granted Carter an honorable discharge. When Carter left the army, he had achieved the rank of second lieutenant.

After leaving military service, Carter became assistant special counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), a position he held from 1945 to 1946. In 1948, he became director of veterans' affairs for American Veterans (AMVETS), where he served until 1949.

In 1950, Carter returned to the NAACP and joined the fight for CIVIL RIGHTS. In 1951, he brought an innovative challenge to the SEPARATE-BUT-EQUAL doctrine when he summoned social scientist Kenneth B. Clark as a witness for the plaintiffs in Briggs v. Elliott (98 F. Supp. 529 [E.D.S.C. 1951]). Clark testified that his research with black children indicated that their self-image and self-esteem were damaged by any system that separated them from their white peers, whether the system was equal or not. At the time, this was highly unorthodox evidence to present at trial. Although the court ruled against the plaintiffs in Briggs, "by holding that segregation of the races in the public schools, as required by the federal constitution and South Carolina state law, was not of itself a denial of the EQUAL PROTECTION of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment," Clark's testimony had set the stage for the arguments that would be presented in Brown and other school desegregation cases. Briggs was later appealed with several other cases, including Brown, which Carter argued and won. His victory in Brown established him as a preeminent civil rights attorney and he went on to participate in the appeals of scores of other cases.

Carter continued as an assistant special counsel with the NAACP until becoming general counsel in 1956. He remained with the NAACP for 13 more years before leaving to enter private practice. During his years of practice Carter argued 22 cases before the Supreme Court, winning all but one.

In 1972, President RICHARD M. NIXON appointed Carter to be a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York. During his long and distinguished career, Carter has received numerous awards and recognitions. He was named a Columbia University Urban Fellow (1968–69) and has served as an adjunct professor at New York University Law School (1965–70), Yale University (1975–77), and the University of Michigan Law School (1977). In 1991, he served as a Shikes Fellow at Harvard University. He holds honorary degrees from numerous institutions including Howard University School of Law; Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania; Northeastern University; and the College of the Holy Cross. Carter was a recipient of Howard University's Alumni Award for Distinguished Postgraduate Achievement. In 1995, the Federal Bar Council awarded its Emory Bucknor Medal for Outstanding Public Service to Judge Carter.

In December 1986, Carter became a senior judge on the court and since then, has continued to be actively involved in a number of important cases. One example included a 25-year-old discrimination case where a New York City sheet metal workers union was ordered to make millions of dollars in back pay to minority workers who claimed that they were denied work opportunities. In 2001, Carter presided over the four-week trial of former Teamster president Ron Carey on federal perjury charges. The trial, which was interrupted by the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, ended in an acquittal for Carey.


Along with his work on the bench, Carter also continued to lecture in the United States and abroad, publish articles and essays in numerous publications, and sit on boards, committees, and task forces devoted to ending discrimination and furthering social justice.


Marshall, Thurgood; Warren Court.

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