Born in Careyville, Fla., Carter was an infant when his family moved to Newark. He recalled the deep-rooted prejudice he faced when his family was forced to moved from their North Ward neighborhood to East Orange after the death of his father.
"They didn’t want me there," he said in a 2004 interview, remembering how East Orange High required students to pass a swimming test. While white students could swim during gym class and after school, black students could use the pool only on Fridays and alternating weekends. And after the black students came out of the pool, it was drained.
"That kind of discrimination has an adverse effect on black kids," said Carter, who would later see the Trenton building housing the New Jersey Department of Education dedicated in his honor.
Real-life experiences made him determined to fight segregation
Carter graduated high school at 16 after skipping two grades, attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Howard University School of Law in Washington, before going on to earn an advanced law degree from Columbia University.
Drafted into the Army, he said it was there that he saw "raw, crude discrimination."
He was commissioned a second lieutenant, but said he faced ongoing racial hostility. "I decided I was going to use whatever I had to fight discrimination," Carter said. According to his son, John, "He was always a fighter.”. "I saw through him the kind of progress that one could make in fighting evil through law."
In 1944, after leaving the military, the NAACP hired him as chief legal assistant to Marshall, who later became the first African-American on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Carter was part of the NAACP team led by Thurgood Marshall that helped end legalized school segregation.
Historical fact: Carter first argued Brown v. Board
He played a huge role in Brown v. Board of Education: He argued one of the five desegregation cases consolidated for argument before the nation's highest court, according to former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey. "It is a commonly mistaken fact that Thurgood Marshall argued Brown.” "It was Robert Carter who first tried Brown vs. the Board of Education in Topeka. He also argued the case before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. And he argued it before the Supreme Court."
Harvey noted that Marshall, who led the team, argued Briggs v. Elliott — the second of the five cases before the court. As part of his legal research in preparing for the case, Carter discovered a study that proved the negative psychological effects of segregation on black children, and relied on the research of psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, who used black dolls and white dolls to show that segregation inhibited the ability for black children to learn.
Harvey said he did not view Carter as a civil rights lawyer, but as a constitutional lawyer because he argued much broader issues. “He argued 22 cases before the Supreme Court and won 21 of them, which is an extraordinary record," said Harvey.
A jurist who became a legendary figure
NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said that Carter's legal philosophy 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."
President Richard Nixon nominated Carter to become a federal judge for the Southern District of New York in 1972. He also oversaw the merger of the National Basketball Association and American Basketball Association.