A famed attorney and judge and son of Florida whose civil rights work included serving as general counsel for the NAACP during the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka school desegregation cases died after suffering a stroke. He was 94.
The civil rights organization, which awarded Robert L. Carter its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, said his passing is a loss to the nation.
Carter, who died in a Manhattan hospital on Jan. 3, “represented the NAACP’s values with courage and conviction,” said the group’s Chairwoman Roslyn M. Brock.
NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said Carter “helped develop the legal philosophy that has defined the NAACP for decades.” “He believed in equality not only in the public school system, but in every institution across this country. His long-term vision and tremendous success in the courtroom made him a legendary figure in the Association and in the nation as a whole,” Jealous said.
Carter joined the NAACP in 1944 as legal assistant to then general counsel Thurgood Marshall and was appointed assistant special counsel in 1945. During that time he was a chief architect and litigator in the Brown v. Board of Education case that led to the desegregation of the nation’s public schools.
Carter helped devise the argument that public school segregation was unconstitutional on its face, an argument that the U.S. Supreme Court adopted, overturning years of precedent and challenging Jim Crow laws.
He served as general counsel from 1956 to 1968, a period when he won 25 of the 26 cases that he argued in the Supreme Court.
Carter went on to serve as a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York for nearly 40 years, nominated by President Richard Nixon in 1972.
During his tenure on the bench, he oversaw the merger of the National Basketball Association and the American Basketball Association in the 1970s.
Carter was born in Caryville in the Florida Panhandle, the youngest of nine children, moving with his family to Newark, N.J., when he was 6 weeks old. His father, Robert L. Carter, died when he was 1 year old and his mother, Annie Martin Carter, took in laundry for white people for 25 years, according to a report in the New Yok Times.
He started college at age 16, attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and went on to Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., and Columbia University in New York for an advanced legal degree which he received in 1941. As a graduate student, he wrote his master’s thesis on the First Amendment and used parts of it preparing for school segregation cases in the 1950s.
Carter joined the U.S. Army shortly before the U.S. entered World War II, becoming a second lieutenant. His experiences with racial hostility in the military hardened his determination to fight for equality, said his son, John Carter, a judge on the New York state bench.
His tenure on the bench also had some high-profile episodes. He oversaw the basketball merger and in 1979 found in favor of black and Hispanic officers challenging the hiring practices of the New York Police Department.
Carter is survived by another son, David, a sister, and a grandson.
Photo: Robert L. Carter