Robert L. Carter

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Robert Lee Carter
United States District Judge Robert L. Carter
Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
In office
December 31, 1986 – January 3, 2012
Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
In office
July 25, 1972 – December 31, 1986
Appointed by Richard Nixon[1]
Preceded by Thomas F. Croake
Succeeded by Kenneth Conboy
Personal details
Born (1917-03-11)March 11, 1917
Caryville, Florida, United States
Died January 3, 2012(2012-01-03) (aged 94)
Manhattan, New York, United States[1]
Spouse(s) Gloria Spencer[1]
Alma mater

Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) (A.B., 1937)
Howard University School of Law (LL.B., 1940)

Columbia Law School (LL.M., 1941)

Robert Lee Carter (March 11, 1917 – January 3, 2012) was an American lawyer, civil rights activist and a United States District Judge.[1][2]

Personal history and early life[edit]

Carter was born on March 11, 1917, in Caryville, Florida.[1] As part of the Great Migration of southern blacks moving north, his mother Annie Martin Carter took him (just six weeks old) and his siblings to Newark, New Jersey, where his father, Robert L. Carter Sr., was working. However, his father died within a year. Nonetheless, the family stayed in Newark, and his mother worked as a laundress to support her family, helped by her eldest daughter, who worked as a seamstress until marrying when Carter was 12. Carter spent many hours at the local public library and attended public schools, including Newark's Barringer High School.

The family moved to East Orange during Carter's high school years, where Carter's activism began after he read that a state court had ruled against racially discriminatory practices such as that high school's only allowing black students to use the swimming pool on Fridays, and entered the pool with white students, defying a teacher's threats.[1] The school chose to close down its pool rather than integrate it. Carter graduated at age 16 from East Orange High School after having skipped two grades.[3]

He earned an undergraduate degree in political science from Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) and his LLB law degree from Howard University School of Law in 1940, both on scholarship and from predominantly black institutions. Carter earned his LLM from Columbia Law School in 1941, after writing an influential master's thesis that would later define the NAACP's legal strategy on the right to freedom of association under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Carter joined the United States Army Air Corps a few months before the United States entered World War II. Experiences such as a white captain's welcoming him to the Augusta, Georgia station by telling him that they did not believe in educating black people, made Carter militant. Nonetheless, Carter completed Officer Candidate School and received a commission as lieutenant. As the only black officer at Harding Field in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Carter integrated the officer's club, to the consternation of many. He then transferred to Columbus, Ohio, but continued to face hostility based on his race.[1]

In 1946, Carter married Gloria Spencer (d. 1971) and had two sons, John W. Carter (who became a justice of the New York Supreme Court in the Bronx) and David Carter.

Civil rights advocate[edit]

Carter being awarded honorary degree by Fordham Law School, dean William Treanor. November 2004

In 1944, as Carter's wartime service ended, he began working at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the following year he became an assistant special counsel at the LDF. By 1948 Carter had become a legal assistant to Thurgood Marshall.[1]

Carter's first major case as a lead attorney was Sweatt v. Painter, challenging the University of Texas' Law School's refusal to admit a black applicant.[1] Carter also presented part of the oral argument to the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. He advocated bringing in psychological research by Kenneth B. Clark and his wife Mamie concerning the deleterious effects that segregated schools had upon minority students' learning and development, which the unanimous court later relied upon in overturning the longstanding Plessy v. Ferguson case.[4] Carter also worked on many important civil rights cases throughout the South, including Sipuel v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Okla. and Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board.[5]

In 1956, Carter succeeded Thurgood Marshall as the general counsel of the NAACP. He argued and won NAACP v. Alabama (1958) (overturning attempts to gather NAACP membership lists) and Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960) (stopping racial gerrymandering in Tuskegee, Alabama) in the United States Supreme Court. However, he was disappointed in 1961 when Marshall chose Jack Greenberg (a white attorney) as his successor as the LDF's general counsel over him. Nonetheless, Carter argued and won NAACP v. Button (1963), which concerned Virginia's attempt to prosecute NAACP attorneys for legal ethics violations. Like NAACP v. Alabama, this removed a tool of intimidation employed by some southern states after Brown was decided, and put into practice the insights into the First Amendment that Carter had gleaned when still a student at Columbia Law School. In all, while working for the NAACP and LDF, Carter argued or co-argued and won twenty-one of twenty-two cases in the Supreme Court.

Civic and legal activist[edit]

Carter was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity,[6] and a co-founder of the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL).[7] He served as a member of numerous bar and court-appointed committees, and was associated with a very wide array of educational institutions, organizations, and foundations.

Resignation from NAACP[edit]

In 1968, Carter resigned from the NAACP, along with his entire legal staff, in protest of the firing of NAACP employee Lewis Steele for a critical article he published in The New York Times Magazine. In his autobiography, Carter wrote that the NAACP board's decision to fire Steele over the article was aimed at him, as "an effort to exert control over the general counsel's office and bring [Carter] in line."[citation needed] Carter then worked at Columbia University's Urban Center, and joined the New York law firm of Poletti, Freidin, Prashker, Feldman & Gartner.[1]

Judicial career[edit]

On June 15, 1972, upon the recommendation of U.S. Senator Jacob Javits, President Richard M. Nixon nominated Carter to a seat on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York vacated by Thomas F. Croake.[1] The United States Senate confirmed Carter on July 21, 1972, and he received his commission on July 25, 1972. He assumed senior status on December 31, 1986, and continued serving in that capacity until his death in 2012.

As a judge, Carter handled litigation concerning the merger of the National Basketball Association and the American Basketball Association, as well as settled a basketball antitrust lawsuit and presided over several cases involving basketball stars. Judge Carter also handed cases involving discrimination against black and hispanic applicants to the New York City police force.

Later life and honors[edit]

Carter wrote numerous law review articles and essays on civil rights and about discrimination in the United States, particularly school segregation, and of his longtime friends and colleagues, Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston.[8]

In 2004, notwithstanding the 1968 power struggle, the NAACP awarded Carter its Spingarn Medal.[9] In November of the same year, Fordham University School of Law awarded Carter an honorary juris doctor degree recognizing his civil rights achievement.

In 2005 Judge Carter published a well-received memoir of his struggles both growing up and as a civil rights advocate, A Matter of Law: A Memoir, to which historian John Hope Franklin contributed an introduction.[10]

In 2010, Patricia Sullivan interviewed Carter as part of the Civil Rights History project.[11][12]

Death and legacy[edit]

Judge Carter died in a Manhattan hospital in 2012 of complications of a stroke, and was survived by both sons, a grandchild, and his sister Alma Carter Lawson.[1] His papers are at the Library of Congress.[13]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Reed, Roy (3 January 2012). "Robert L. Carter, an Architect of School Desegregation, Dies at 94". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 January 2012. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Schwaneberg, Robert. "Education building honors a champion: Rights lawyer Carter argued Brown case", copy of article from The Star-Ledger, November 21, 2006, at the Warren County Education Association. Accessed March 5, 2012.
  4. ^ LA Times obituary at
  5. ^ "Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board and the Desegregation of New Orleans Schools, Biographies, Robert L. Carter (1917– )", History of the Federal Judiciary, Federal Judicial Center 
  6. ^ Wesley, Charles H. (1981). The History of Alpha Phi Alpha, A Development in College Life (14th ed.). Chicago, IL: Foundation. pp. 313, 404, 467. ASIN: B000ESQ14W. 
  7. ^ Hoffman, Brian Gene, Carter, Robert L. (1917-2012), 
  8. ^ list of nine publications 1985-2000 at
  9. ^ NAACP Spingarn Medal
  10. ^ Robert L. Carter, A Matter of Law: A Memoir(New Press, 2005 )ISBN 1565848306.
  11. ^, transcript at
  12. ^ Robert Lee Carter's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
  13. ^
Legal offices
Preceded by
Thomas Francis Croake
Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
Succeeded by
Kenneth Conboy