Robert L. Carter, Pivotal in Desegregation Cases, Dies at 94

By Mark Walsh — January 05, 2012 3 min read
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Robert L. Carter, who as a civil rights lawyer argued the Brown v. Board of Education case both at the trial court in Topeka, Kan., and in the U.S. Supreme Court, died this week in New York City. He was 94.

Carter, who was a retired federal district judge in Manhattan, died on Tuesday morning, Jan. 3, from complications of a stroke, The New York Times reported.

Carter was a chief lieutenant to Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the 1940s and 50s when the organization led the legal assault on racial segregation in American education. He was an advocate for using the research of psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, whose black and white “doll studies” showed how segregation created feelings of inferiority among black schoolchildren.

In 1950, Carter successfully argued in the Supreme Court on behalf of George McLaurin, a black doctoral candidate in education at the University of Oklahoma, who was admitted to the formerly all-white program under court order but faced segregation within the school. The Supreme Court, in McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents for Higher Education, ruled 9-0 that the university’s treatment of the black student fell short of the “separate but equal” standard then still in effect. The decision, along with a similar ruling in Sweatt v. Painter (argued by Marshall and decided the same day in 1950), helped lay the groundwork for the attack on segregation in elementary and secondary education.

In 1951, Carter traveled to Topeka as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s lead counsel in the Brown case. Thurgood Marshall did not participate in that trial, as the organization was pressing several cases around the country attacking segregated schooling.

According to Simple Justice, Richard Kluger’s exhaustive 1975 account of Brown and its companion cases, Carter was joined in Topeka by Jack Greenberg, a white NAACP lawyer who would go on to succeed Marshall as leader of the Legal Defense Fund. Because of Jim Crow laws, Carter, who was black, could not stay in Topeka’s main hotels, so he and Greenberg decided to stay together in a “colored” hotel. “They were stunned at its dirtiness,” Kluger writes, and when Greenberg pulled on a light cord in the bathroom, part of the ceiling came down on him. The two lawyers moved to the home of a local NAACP board member for the duration of the trial.

Kluger provides a detailed account of the Brown trial before a three-judge federal district court, which in the summer of 1951 issued a unanimous decision upholding the Topeka school district’s racial segregation policy. The judges were sympathetic to the NAACP’s arguments, but they felt constrained by the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson upholding the doctrine of separate but equal.

But Carter and Greenberg won a “consolation prize” from the Kansas court, Kluger said. In a finding of fact accompanying its opinion, the Kansas court echoed social science testimony presented by the NAACP lawyers and said, “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. ... A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.”

Carter would go on to argue the Topeka case in the Supreme Court in 1952, and the 1953 reargument. In his unanimous 1954 opinion for the high court in Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren quoted the finding by the Kansas court about the detrimental effects on black children of separating them by their race. And in his own words, Warren said, “To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

Carter won 21 of 22 cases he argued in the Supreme Court, the NAACP LDF said in an appreciation. He left the LDF in 1957 to become general counsel of the NAACP, with the two organization having separated by then.

Carter was appointed to the U.S. District Court in Manhattan by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972. The Times reported that he is survived by two sons, one grandson, and a sister.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.