Education building honors a champion

Rights lawyer Carter argued Brown case
Tuesday, November 21, 2006 • BY ROBERT SCHWANEBERG • Star-Ledger Staff

Almost 54 years ago, Robert L. Carter stood before the U.S. Supreme Court and argued that segregated schools can never be equal. The justices agreed in a landmark decision that changed both public education and race relations in the nation.

Yesterday, the Trenton building that houses the state Department of Education was dedicated in honor of Carter, who grew up in Newark and East Orange and is now a federal judge in New York.

In a telephone interview, the 89-year-old judge said it was "a great honor" to have an education building bear his name. He added, "If the people in that building will fight for equal educational opportunity, it will be an even greater honor for me."

It was a recurring theme during yesterday's dedication ceremonies, which Carter was unable to attend because of illness. His sons, John, a criminal court judge in New York, and David, who works for an investment firm, attended on his behalf.

Gov. Jon Corzine said "no one is more committed" to providing equal educational opportunity than his administration.

"I embrace with great passion guaranteeing equal promise to every child, regardless of ZIP code," Corzine said.

Theodore Shaw, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said it would be "insufficient, if not hypocritical, to name this building for Judge Carter and stop there. We have to continue the work that he started and dedicated his life to."

Born in Florida, Carter was 6 weeks old when his family moved to Newark. He attended Barringer High School in Newark and East Orange High School, graduating at age 16 after skipping two grades.

After earning an advanced law degree from Columbia University, Carter was headed for a career in academia but was drafted into the Army, where he said he saw "raw, crude discrimination."

"I decided I was going to use whatever I had to fight discrimination," Carter said. In 1944, he went to work at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund as chief legal assistant to Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Carter argued 22 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning "an astounding" 21 of them, state Education Commissioner Lucille Davy said. The most important was Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., actually five desegregation cases consolidated for argument before the nation's highest court.

Marshall's role in arguing that case is better remembered. But it was Carter who had tried the Kansas case, laying the legal groundwork that would ultimately convince the justices that segregated educational facilities, even when equal in other respects, are unconstitutional. And when the case was heard on Dec. 9, 1952, Carter was the first of five lawyers to argue against segregation. Marshall went second.

Rep. Donald Payne (D-10th Dist.) called Carter "our unsung hero of the civil rights movement."

Carter was named a U.S. District Court judge in 1972. During his years on the bench, he has sentenced a corrupt congressman to prison, ordered the New York Police Department to hire more minorities and approved the 1977 settlement that allowed the Nets basketball team to leave Long Island, N.Y., for New Jersey.

Robert Schwaneberg covers federal courts. He may be reached at or (609) 989-0324.
© 2006 The Star-Ledger. Used by with permission.

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