Honoring Justice

On March 1st, I had the honor of speaking at the memorial service for civil rights hero and respected jurist Judge Robert L. Carter. These were my reflections:

I had the privilege of serving as Judge Carter’s Law Clerk in 1989. But years before that, I was sure that I wanted to know this man, and to be known by him.

During college, I worked as an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union, and I was assigned to assist Dr. Kenneth Clark in fashioning a school desegregation remedy for, of all places, Topeka, Kansas—which had yet to fully desegregate. Dr. Clark had me read Richard Kluger’s book, Simple Justice, chronicling the road to Brown v. Board of Education.

On page 271, I met a man who Kluger described as “a limber, quiet, and strongly self-disciplined black lawyer named Robert Lee Carter, who came to the [NAACP] Legal Defense Fund after a stormy career in the Air Force.” I was intrigued.

“Carter’s insistence that black officers were entitlted to every privilege that white officers enjoyed,” Kluger wrote, “got him branded a troublemaker and almost tossed out of the service altogether, until Bill Hastie intervened with Washington’s higher-ups.” I had to know more.

I read in Simple Justice, and in other places, that, working with Dr. Clark, Judge Carter had crafted the complex mixture of law, history, and social science that won the day in the Brown case.

I read that the Judge had argued 22 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and won 21 of those cases.

And I read that when a threatening white sheriff, backed by an armed mob, had mockingly called the Judge by his first name, young Bob Carter replied with a line worthy of Sidney Poitier or Clint Eastwood: “Only my best friends call me by my first name, and I don’t think I know you that well.”

The Sheriff, by the way, was the notorious Cecil Price of Philadelphia, Mississippi, who was later convicted on charges stemming from the murders of 3 civil rights workers there. When Sheriff Price told the Judge “that’s how we do it down here,” the Judge Responded by calling the Sheriff “Cecil.”

This was someone I had to meet.

And then there was the swimming pool story. Though many of you have heard it before, I think it bears infinite repeating.

As a teenager, the Judge’s family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, not far from where my family and I live now. East Orange High was not officially segregated, but black students were intentionally isolated and made to feel unwelcome.

The school had an excellent swimming team, and learning to swim was part of the white student’s phys ed requirement. But black students were allowed to use the pool only at the close of school, on alternate Fridays—after which it was drained, cleaned, and refilled, as the Judge says in his own book, “to protect the white children from contamination the blacks might have left in the pool.”

In 1933, at age 16, young Bob Carter read in the newspaper of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling that all public school facilities available to white children in the state had to be equally available to black children. So the next time the white boys headed off to the pool, Bob Carter joined them.

His stunned teacher threatened him with expulsion. It will not surprise any of you to learn that this did not work. The teacher pleaded with him. Those of us who served as the Judge’s law clerks, or appeared in his courtroom, are aware that this was a particularly ineffective approach.

So young Bob got into the pool. But none of the white kids would get in with him. And none of the other black kids would get in with him. And Bob did not know how to swim, because, of course, he’d been excluded from the swimming lessons the white kids had had.

So week after week until graduation, this 16 year old would get into the pool, by himself, and cling to the side of the pool for dear life until the end of the period.

I later came to work for the Judge, to learn from him, to love and respect him—to bring him breakfast every other morning for a year (something they don’t tell you when you apply for a clerkship)—and to see his fearsome intellect and presence in the Courtroom.

But when I think of him now, I will always think of that 16 year old. Clinging to the side of the pool. Clinging to Justice and Equality, and Basic Human Dignity for all of us—as he did throughout his long life.

Thank you, Judge Carter. And Godspeed.

 

 

Honoring Judge Robert L. Carter

On January 3rd, America lost one of the greatest champions of equal opportunity and human rights that our nation has ever known. Judge Robert L. Carter, civil rights lawyer, jurist, and fierce defender of justice, passed away at age 94 after suffering a stroke.

Judge Carter was a primary architect behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, crafting an innovative approach that blended constitutional scholarship, social science research, historical knowledge, and strategic litigation. After the victory, he pursued a strategy that helped bring desegregation to the North, where it had long been treated as an open secret. Over his career, he argued 22 cases before the Supreme Court, and won 21 of them.

As a federal judge, he held litigants to the highest standards, while rigorously guarding equal justice under law. Over four decades on the bench, he brought greater inclusion to the New York Police Department and to construction trades that had long excluded people of color and women. And he continued to speak out against injustice wherever he encountered it. That he chose me as one of his law clerks was a singular honor; I remain humbled by having been able to serve in that capacity.

In 2007, Judge Carter honored The Opportunity Agenda by authorizing us to create a Robert L. Carter Legal Fellowship for innovative lawyers to promote equal justice under law. Our three Carter Fellows since then have secured more equal health care for people of color in New York and Connecticut, expanded fair housing in Texas and at the national level, and ensured that federal economic recovery programs reached the hardest hit communities around the country. We are proud to continue Judge Carter’s legacy of excellence, innovation, and equal opportunity for all.

Thank you, Judge Carter, for your lifetime of service, for the transformative change you brought to our nation, and for the sterling example of leadership that you have given us all.

Read also:

Honoring Judge Robert L. Carter

On January 3rd, America lost one of the greatest champions of equal opportunity and human rights that our nation has ever known. Judge Robert L. Carter, civil rights lawyer, jurist, and fierce defender of justice, passed away at age 94 after suffering a stroke.

Judge Carter was a primary architect behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, crafting an innovative approach that blended constitutional scholarship, social science research, historical knowledge, and strategic litigation. After the victory, he pursued a strategy that helped bring desegregation to the North, where it had long been treated as an open secret. Over his career, he argued 22 cases before the Supreme Court, and won 21 of them.

As a federal judge, he held litigants to the highest standards, while rigorously guarding equal justice under law. Over four decades on the bench, he brought greater inclusion to the New York Police Department and to construction trades that had long excluded people of color and women. And he continued to speak out against injustice wherever he encountered it. That he chose me as one of his law clerks was a singular honor; I remain humbled by having been able to serve in that capacity.

In 2007, Judge Carter honored The Opportunity Agenda by authorizing us to create a Robert L. Carter Legal Fellowship for innovative lawyers to promote equal justice under law. Our three Carter Fellows since then have secured more equal health care for people of color in New York and Connecticut, expanded fair housing in Texas and at the national level, and ensured that federal economic recovery programs reached the hardest hit communities around the country. We are proud to continue Judge Carter’s legacy of excellence, innovation, and equal opportunity for all.

Thank you, Judge Carter, for your lifetime of service, for the transformative change you brought to our nation, and for the sterling example of leadership that you have given us all.

Read also:

Honoring Judge Robert L. Carter

On January 3rd, America lost one of the greatest champions of equal opportunity and human rights that our nation has ever known. Judge Robert L. Carter, civil rights lawyer, jurist, and fierce defender of justice, passed away at age 94 after suffering a stroke.

Judge Carter was a primary architect behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, crafting an innovative approach that blended constitutional scholarship, social science research, historical knowledge, and strategic litigation. After the victory, he pursued a strategy that helped bring desegregation to the North, where it had long been treated as an open secret. Over his career, he argued 22 cases before the Supreme Court, and won 21 of them.

As a federal judge, he held litigants to the highest standards, while rigorously guarding equal justice under law. Over four decades on the bench, he brought greater inclusion to the New York Police Department and to construction trades that had long excluded people of color and women. And he continued to speak out against injustice wherever he encountered it. That he chose me as one of his law clerks was a singular honor; I remain humbled by having been able to serve in that capacity.

In 2007, Judge Carter honored The Opportunity Agenda by authorizing us to create a Robert L. Carter Legal Fellowship for innovative lawyers to promote equal justice under law. Our three Carter Fellows since then have secured more equal health care for people of color in New York and Connecticut, expanded fair housing in Texas and at the national level, and ensured that federal economic recovery programs reached the hardest hit communities around the country. We are proud to continue Judge Carter’s legacy of excellence, innovation, and equal opportunity for all.

Thank you, Judge Carter, for your lifetime of service, for the transformative change you brought to our nation, and for the sterling example of leadership that you have given us all.

Read also:

What 21st Century Democracy Looks Like

Those who say they don’t know what the Occupy Wall Street protestors want fail to understand the nature of this quintessential 21st century movement.  It is true that they have no policy manifesto.  They have not yet released a list of shared demands, although they are working toward doing so.  But when you listen to the participants tell their stories, when you read their signs and hear their songs, their shared desires for our nation clearly emerge.

Their most fervent demand, not surprisingly, is for honest work that pays a decent, living wage, not only for themselves, but for their 14 million fellow unemployed Americans. But taken together, there is much more.

They seek accountability, including fair rules, oversight, and prosecution where appropriate of the corporations and individuals who wrecked our economy—often through fraud—then continued to pay themselves astronomical bonuses, even as they received an expensive rescue from American taxpayers.They demand a fairer tax structure in which the wealthiest companies, millionaires, and billionaires (the 1%) contribute their fair share to the nation that is giving them so much.

They want a political system in which every American’s voice and vote are equal, and in which large sums of money are not allowed to corrupt the democratic process. They reject the Supreme Court-made fiction that a corporation’s money is the same as a citizen’s voice under our First Amendment, and they want to explore amending the constitution to restore it’s real meaning in this regard.

They want to make college affordable to everyone with the ability and desire to attend, without the crushing burden of student loan debt that cripples graduates’ progress and deters many gifted students from attending at all.

They want recognition that it was lending industry misconduct, lax rules and enforcement, and unprecedented unemployment rates that caused the mortgage meltdown. And they see the basic truth that halting foreclosures, restoring devastated neighborhoods, and reducing mortgage payments to fair, realistic levels is in everyone’s interest—including lenders.

They want a rapid end to the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with care and employment for the troops coming home. And they seek to put the goal of deficit reduction in the proper context. Like most Americans, they not only see job creation as more urgent to our national health and prosperity, but they also see putting Americans back to work, combined with fair tax reform and a military wind-down, as the most effective path to growing our economy and closing our deficit.

Clearly not every Occupy Wall Street protester is walking around with this fully-formed list of demands in her or his head.But this is not that kind of movement. Just as the demonstrators famously rely on each other’s voices for amplification, their best ideas and demands are crowd sourced, a rough-and-tumble vetting process that befits a 21st century democracy.

Nor is it surprising that different participants in the movement will differ in their precise policy prescriptions. Members of the 1960s civil rights movement—including Martin Luther King, Jr. and now congressman John Lewis—often bitterly disagreed about what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws should include.

And Dr. King’s subsequent call for an end to the war in Vietnam was not initially shared by all members of that movement.There is an important, vibrant difference, it must be remembered, between a movement and a political action committee.

Occupy Wall Street’s organizers are now engaged in a deliberative, participatory process designed to identify more specific common demands. This is an important step for a movement that is growing in maturity as quickly as it is growing in size and diversity. But as that process moves forward, one need only visit Zuccotti Park and the many other dynamic sites of this movement around the country to understand what this movement wants.

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