Earlier this month, I had the honor of speaking at the memorial service for civil rights hero and respected jurist Judge Robert L. Carter. These were my reflections:
I had the privilege of serving as Judge Carter’s Law Clerk in 1989. But years before that, I was sure that I wanted to know this man, and to be known by him.
During college, I worked as an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union, and I was assigned to assist Dr. Kenneth Clark in fashioning a school desegregation remedy for, of all places, Topeka, Kansas—which had yet to fully desegregate. Dr. Clark had me read Richard Kluger’s book, Simple Justice, chronicling the road to Brown v. Board of Education.
On page 271, I met a man who Kluger described as “a limber, quiet, and strongly self-disciplined black lawyer named Robert Lee Carter, who came to the [NAACP] Legal Defense Fund after a stormy career in the Air Force.” I was intrigued.
“Carter’s insistence that black officers were entitlted to every privilege that white officers enjoyed,” Kluger wrote, “got him branded a troublemaker and almost tossed out of the service altogether, until Bill Hastie intervened with Washington’s higher-ups.” I had to know more.
I read in Simple Justice, and in other places, that, working with Dr. Clark, Judge Carter had crafted the complex mixture of law, history, and social science that won the day in the Brown case.
I read that the Judge had argued 22 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and won 21 of those cases.
And I read that when a threatening white sheriff, backed by an armed mob, had mockingly called the Judge by his first name, young Bob Carter replied with a line worthy of Sidney Poitier or Clint Eastwood: “Only my best friends call me by my first name, and I don’t think I know you that well.”
The Sheriff, by the way, was the notorious Cecil Price of Philadelphia, Mississippi, who was later convicted on charges stemming from the murders of 3 civil rights workers there. When Sheriff Price told the Judge “that’s how we do it down here,” the Judge Responded by calling the Sheriff “Cecil.”
This was someone I had to meet.
And then there was the swimming pool story. Though many of you have heard it before, I think it bears infinite repeating.
As a teenager, the Judge’s family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, not far from where my family and I live now. East Orange High was not officially segregated, but black students were intentionally isolated and made to feel unwelcome.
The school had an excellent swimming team, and learning to swim was part of the white student’s phys ed requirement. But black students were allowed to use the pool only at the close of school, on alternate Fridays—after which it was drained, cleaned, and refilled, as the Judge says in his own book, “to protect the white children from contamination the blacks might have left in the pool.”
In 1933, at age 16, young Bob Carter read in the newspaper of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling that all public school facilities available to white children in the state had to be equally available to black children. So the next time the white boys headed off to the pool, Bob Carter joined them.
His stunned teacher threatened him with expulsion. It will not surprise any of you to learn that this did not work. The teacher pleaded with him. Those of us who served as the Judge’s law clerks, or appeared in his courtroom, are aware that this was a particularly ineffective approach.
So young Bob got into the pool. But none of the white kids would get in with him. And none of the other black kids would get in with him. And Bob did not know how to swim, because, of course, he’d been excluded from the swimming lessons the white kids had had.
So week after week until graduation, this 16 year old would get into the pool, by himself, and cling to the side of the pool for dear life until the end of the period.
I later came to work for the Judge, to learn from him, to love and respect him—to bring him breakfast every other morning for a year (something they don’t tell you when you apply for a clerkship)—and to see his fearsome intellect and presence in the Courtroom.
But when I think of him now, I will always think of that 16 year old. Clinging to the side of the pool. Clinging to Justice and Equality, and Basic Human Dignity for all of us—as he did throughout his long life.
Thank you, Judge Carter. And Godspeed.
Photo courtesy The Opportunity Agenda