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Judge Robert Lee Carter interview

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J: I want to start by asking a few questions about yourself and how you came to work for the Legal

Defense Fund.


Mr. Carter: I went to Howard University Law School and I received a Masters from Columbia University Law School.  I wasn't working for the Legal Defense Fund, I was working for the National Association for Advancement of Colored People, hired by Thurgood Marshall in 1944 as an assistant.  I'm not sure even he knew at the time that this was the beginning of an expansion.  When I came along, the Defense Fund and the NAACP were one at that point, the contributions were tax exempt.  The NAACP was tax exempt and the Legal Defense Fund wasn't but contributions were so that is how it was.


J: That's why they became separate?


Mr. Carter: That's not the story.  They became separate after, in case you are going to ask me about it, after Brown v Board of Education was won, the number of southern congressman began to make inquiries about funding, until that point the offices were the same.  They had the same officers in both organizations.  I was Assistant Counsel for the Legal Defense Fund and Thurgood was Special Counsel for the NAACP and Directing Counsel for the Legal Defense Fund.  We had the title on the NAACP side, Special Counsel and Assistant Special Counsel, so that both of us could testify on legislation but I received small compensation from the NAACP, as I remember for being an Assistant Special Counsel.  The bulk of my salary came from the Legal Defense Fund.  That's how we sort of kept the thing separate.  Then there came all this inquiry.  That was only because we had been successful, I suppose in the Brown Case.  I don't remember, you asked me, apparently I must have worked on it.  But I don't recall. 


J: Do you remember the case in Merriam, Kansas, South Park Schools and Esther Brown?



Mr. Carter: What I do recall, but that was a swimming pool issue that was in Kansas City, but I think that was in Kansas City, Missouri.  I don't remember.


J: Do you remember Esther Brown at all?


Mr. Carter: Of course, I do.  Very active as I remember in the NAACP in Kansas.  She was in touch with the national office on a number of occasions out there on the projects that she was involved in.  One of the kind of persons that we would rely upon and depend upon because she did a lot of work locally and to keep things going and to keep things out there active.  What I don't remember is as much her role in Brown as I do in other areas.  I don't know whether that is because my memory is bad now or because of the fact that she may have been ill.  I don't remember her being, right now, no present recollection.  Her face doesn't come to me as being as involved in Brown as I remember her.


J: In the forties a few of the people that were...


Mr. Carter: I think I got involved in the Topeka case probably about 1950.  I think you have to change your focus. In view of the history of the separation of these organizations after Brown it was in contact of the NAACP, not the Legal Defense Fund.  A lawyer  out there, I think his name was Scott, he had a brother. They were active in the organization.  There was another lawyer out there, who's name I don't remember, who was the one who actually had represented the plaintiff in this case.  He got in touch with me and I went out there and helped him get started in the case.  In a sense I think both versions here are probably correct.  In 1950 at the NAACP Convention, I think the contact with me from Topeka came after that.  Resolutions passed announcing that the organization would only take cases in which the elimination of segregation was the subject.  We couldn't take any cases for equalization of schools.  It was announcement of general policy.  The branches at that point began, I noticed, looking for cases in which we were attacking segregation not equalization and so forth.


J: Do you mean Charles Bledsoe, does that ....?


Mr. Carter: Yes, Bledsoe got in touch with me.  I went out there and met with Bledsoe and the Scott brothers, I think they were brothers.


J: Two brothers and a father.


Mr. Carter: I recall two.  One of the brothers was more active in the case as I recall. After we drafted their complaint and then we changed ------.  A horrible place in some hotel.  I forget what it was called.  The place was distasteful.  I was uncomfortable.  I don't recall....I didn't have any problem about eating.  We did eat and it may well be that we ate in some restaurants in the black areas.  We looked at the schools with all the people that were involved.  The case was filed in Federal Court and at the time there was three judges.  There were two judges on the district court and then there was this judge that sat on the Court of Appeals.  I don't remember now what Court of Appeals.  It could have been the Tenth circuit.


J: I think it's the Tenth.


Mr. Carter: Then from that court it went to Supreme Court of the United States.  Actually I had no problem about that.  I had no problem with relationship with Scott and so forth.  Jack Greenburg was there. At the time it was probably his first case.  The only problem I did have in the case, it was kind of funny, but the people out there, even the judge from the Court of Appeals, probably knew them.  We worked everything out and the elder Scott...


J: Elisha?


Mr. Carter: Yes.  He apparently was at one point an excellent lawyer but had succumbed to alcohol I think.  He just interrupted at one point.  He came into the court and blah, blah, blah.  The judges apparently knew him and quietly.....I was horrified.  The judges knew who he was and waved to him quietly to subside and he did.


J: They didn't rule out of order or anything like that?


Mr. Carter: No, I think they just listened to him.  Maybe they might have ruled him out of order.  There was no big disruption.  He was the one causing all the stir. He had his little say and he left.  We resumed the case.  I was horrified because I wasn't as used to this as the people out there were.  But they knew him.  I also had the sense that there was some affection for him.


J: Yes.  He argued the case.....


Mr. Carter: We argued the case --------  It went from the District Court in Kansas at that point, because there were three judges, directly to the Supreme Court of the United States.  It got to the Supreme Court of the United States maybe in 1952 and the case from South Carolina had a lower number.  We argued the case together and then the Supreme Court sent it back for re-argument for some reason.  I don't know which, the case in South Carolina was more delayed in getting back, being filed on the reordinance.  In that matter the Brown case became the leading case.  That's why the case has been named Brown.  If we had not, the Brown I'm saying we because we filed all the cases.... If the Brown record had not been perfected for the appeal earlier than when it had these and other cases would have been given another name.


J: Was it Briggs v South Carolina?


Mr. Carter: Yes.  The cases would have been Briggs v South Carolina.  It was just an accident that it was the Brown case.


J: I want to ask you about how the "Brown" case came to be called "Brown."


Mr. Carter: I think they listed it alphabetically.  Mr. Bledsoe did it, I guess, and Linda Brown was just the lead because her's was the first name of all the plaintiffs.  So they took the... had a right vowel, that's what they usually say versus Topeka School Board. (asked about Paul Wilson and if he was still living).


J: He's had a stroke.  He is retired from Kansas University Law School.


Mr. Carter: I know.  Getting up there.  I started to say he was older than I but not necessarily because I think we may have been about the same age.  He could have been younger than I was.


J: I wanted to know just a little bit about what it was like to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court.


Mr. Carter: The difference between us had been that I think this was Mr. Wilson's first case.  It was like my first case before the Supreme Court.  You recognize how important it is to you.  Also unlike Wilson, the stakes were personally enormous.  At that period of time we were working for the NAACP.  As a black person, you were in fact working for yourself.  It wasn't like working for some client and so forth.  You were doing it for yourself.  I'm sure it had enormous implications beyond those for Mr. Wilson--a matter of just winning a case or losing a case.  It was something very....the word isn't overwhelmed but I certainly felt that this was a very important matter in my own fate and the fate of the black people in this country.  The point was I didn't think we could lose because we had nothing to lose.  Separate but equal was on the ballot and that was the best they could do.  They couldn't make it any worse so that there was nothing to lose.  We sort of figured in view of the state of the world at the time, the United States world and democracy.  We just fought a war against the Nazis and their racial practices.  We had begun the Cold War.  It seemed that at least the Supreme Court could not come out and say that segregation is still appropriate.  I just didn't see that.  Then we were helped a great deal by the decision of the Brown case in Kansas because the judge who wrote the Court of Appeal opinion of fact that if the Supreme Court hadn't decided the separate but equal doctrine Plessy v Ferguson as constitutional we would find for the plaintiff, so we thought that was next to a victory.  You know you feel this way but always in a case you feel that you can't win until you know you can.  You can't lose, you know that.  But as I said, I never accepted the thesis that some people had that you can't do this because of what you were going to lose.  But there was nothing we could lose.  The court couldn't make anything any worse.  The status quo, where we are.  We haven't gained anything but we haven't lost the dog gone thing in regards to time.


J: You mentioned the discrimination black teachers faced in being hired in white schools in the article in the Michigan Law Review.  I was struck by that.


Mr. Carter: I'm not sure that I thought about that at the time.  I thought about it because I was involved in cases right after that as a consequence of it.  I think we were aware of that as being a problem.  It was just something when we had this case.  We sort of felt that in the short run that would be a problem but in the long run it probably wouldn't be.  I know that was the fact with the Brown case.  There were that they had been discriminated against.  I also had been involved in pay equity cases.  This wasn't new to me because I had been involved in cases when the black teachers were being paid less.  We were bringing those cases because before I had been a sort of staff....but I had been involved in several of those cases.  One in ---------.  I wasn't, as you have indicated, I wasn't unaware that black teachers faced discrimination.  Thirty-eight years after Brown, after the 1954 decision....actually the problem is in education.  In the educational field, I think we are probably worse off because I think that there are probably more black kids in all predominantly black schools today than there were in 1954.  It has to do with demography with blacks coming up in inner cities and so forth.  Although there is no overt segregation, the inner city schools are a disaster.  Whites are opposed to integration and resist it fiercely and also resist improving the black schools.


J: You were talking about the fact that schools are more segregated now than they were before the Brown litigation.


Mr. Carter: I think they are more segregated now and I think that the inner city schools are facing deprivations in terms of the physical access these kids have to the technology that is available in schools that are not predominantly black, the differences are just appalling.  What I do think, and I've said this before in an earlier Michigan Law Review.  I think the fallout from Brown has been, if we ever were, we never are again going to be the submissive taking things quietly and so forth.  I remember one thing that strikes me is the distinction that even before Brown--like in public accommodations on going to a restaurant in New York.  You have a law that doesn't allow discrimination and yet you would be discriminated against.  Middle class blacks would find that almost the day after Brown was decided that same group of middle class blacks would go to a restaurant in New York and they would feel that they had been discriminated against, they would raise hell.  That's the change.  I think that is a great change.  But in terms of schools I don't think it's.... I don't know how to deal with that because I think that you have a better sense of what it is that you want to draw out of me for your project.  I'm responding to what you ask.  I'm not sure that  I have anything to add.  I don't believe it was a high point in my life.  I think it was one of those.  I went on and did a number of things and won a number of cases and so forth, which were showing up Brown.  They have had considerable significance.  It took me....it was a high point in my life and one of the -----.  As I said, my years with the NAACP were special because it's very  difficult and unusual I believe for one to be able to work on something that you like and have the freedom that I had when I joined the association.  I had the freedom to develop my own ideas and operate creatively and expand intellectually and at the same time have the sense I'm working for myself.  That kind of satisfaction is rare but I had a unique experience.  My becoming a civil rights attorney was an accident.


J: An accident?  OK.


Mr. Carter: My interest was when I was in college was in political science.  I suppose they were close.  Law was close.  The Dean from Howard came by recruiting, and I didn't have any finances and so forth, and offered me a scholarship to Howard.  I knew that an AB from Lincoln wasn't sufficient for me and I wanted to see more stuff.  I had no idea when I was in Law School where I was going to go.  I actually thought maybe I would enjoy teaching.  That was a possibility because I had some pretensions to scholarship at the time.  I didn't know what I was going to do or how I was going to fit into the law.  Many people thought that because of my soft voice that law was not for me, I wouldn't be a good trial lawyer.  They viewed trial lawyers as being those with fine voice.  I felt they were correct until I actually started some trials and I realized that was a lot of nonsense.  A trial lawyer, what you have to do is to be able to know the facts in your particular case.  The oration, if you have a jury.....that was another thing.  In most of the cases when I worked with the Association was before a judge.  We didn't seek damages so I had very few jury trials except in criminal cases.  Then most of my work was at the appellate level anyway.  I realized that only then that I would make a pretty decent litigation lawyer.  I'd been convinced....not really.  I like this job.  I went from the Association in '68.  I went to a commercial law firm here in New York and partner in that firm.  I had no idea how much money was around to be made in law.  I had no idea.  I think my first bill that I sent out with the work I had done.  We were representing TWA and I sent a bill out that was in excess of what I would make in a year at the Legal Defense Fund.  I think it was forty-some thousand dollars.  The most I made in the association was $25,000.00  That's in '68, which is quite different from $25,000.00 is not $25,000.00 today.  Because you could live on $25,000.00 then.  But even so those are things that I did.  I worked with a law firm until I was appointed to the Bench.  I enjoyed that as well because that was interesting.  It was an interesting experience.  The problem that I found is I didn't really know all this stuff but I guess I should have.  Law firms are business.  You have to operate business and that's not where I like to be.  I don't want to turn my nose up at it but it's just not the sort of thing for me.  I would have made pretty good at it.


J: Do you have any children?  Did they follow you in the...?


Mr. Carter: I have two sons.  One is a lawyer working for the District Attorney's Office.  The other has gone into the mathematician but his interest is in Wall Street.  He's interested in making money.  He's now down in Durham with a brokerage firm.


J: I want to thank you for taking time to talk to me.


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