He was committed to freedom

Way Back When

Desegregation: Activist Walter P. Carter worked wholeheartedly for social change in the 1960s, forever changing the city's civil rights landscape.

February 13, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In the 1960s, Walter P. Carter went freedom riding along U.S. 40 to desegregate restaurants and before his premature death in 1971, had succeeded in becoming one of Baltimore's leading civil rights leaders during the turbulent 1960s.

Carter's activism was no doubt aroused by the marchings and cross burnings of the Ku Klux Klan which he witnessed as a child growing up in Monroe, N.C., whose population of 6,000 included 2,000 blacks.

During World War II, while serving as an Army clerk in Europe, he narrowly escaped death when an enemy bomb exploded a nearby ammunition dump. It was an experience that altered his life.

"You almost get killed one night and you say `what for?' And you try to discover this democracy you were defending," he told The Sun in 1966.

After being discharged, he earned a bachelor's degree with honors from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in social work. Realizing he could no longer live in the South, he moved to Baltimore.

"I couldn't take it. Frankly, I thought that I would find more people willing to work for social change here. But I couldn't even find them here," he said in the interview.

Carter who later became the leader of the Baltimore chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1963, joined the organization in 1961.

"In 1961 when I started with CORE, the group was so white we had to integrate the picket line," he told the Sunday Sun Magazine in 1968. "CORE is the most potent force to come along for black folks.

"Baltimore is a complicated city. It's not like New York. Here, you can have the Ku Klux Klan in full regalia on one corner and the same guy on another corner in a gray flannel suit. You have to get the feel of this town. Bayard Rustin used to say when he came here, `Take me back to de bus station.' "

Arrested six times for demonstrations, Carter's philosophy of striking at segregation was "militantly, forcefully and unrelentingly." He had mastered the technique, he said, of "presenting a painfully clear situation by making an issue."

"You got to be militant but you got to be smart. You got to operate on soul feeling. Your goal's got to be liberation, not integration."

While other civil rights leaders were somewhat cautious about the scope of the Route 40 freedom rides, Carter plowed on ahead.

"Now he credits those rides with provoking a crisis in transportation that forced changes in segregation practices and led to the public accommodations laws in the city and the state," said The Sun.

In 1961, Carter led a highly publicized Christmas Eve Freedom Ride to Crisfield, the hometown of Gov. J. Millard Tawes, in order to raise the issue of segregation on the Eastern Shore.

He participated in demonstrations in Ocean City, Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in 1963 and against the Howard Johnson restaurant chain.

"It's the kind of emotion you can't describe" he told a reporter after being served in a White Coffee Pot in 1963.

"I sat there and the waitress served me eggs and bacon. I've been sitting at that counter for five years without being served," he said.

Carter also served as Maryland's coordinator for the historic march on Washington in 1963 and mobilized 15,000 local participants.

In 1965, he coordinated the largest local project of the Federation of Civil Rights Organizations, "The March Against Segregated Housing and Slums," with 3,000, demonstrators.

Carter suffered defeat in 1968, when the City Council by a 10-8 vote, rejected his nomination to become the city's Community Action Agency chief.

In 1971, Carter suffered a heart attack and died at Maryland General Hospital. He was 48.

At his death, he was an assistant professor of sociology at Loyola College.

In the early 1970s, there was a proposal to rename North Avenue "Walter P. Carter Boulevard" in recognition of his civil rights work. However, the measure failed to gain acceptance by the City Council.

It wasn't until 1976 that Carter's achievements were recognized when an elementary school on E. 43rd Street was named after him.

"We decorate our soldiers and forget our saviors," Rev. Marion C. Bascomb, former pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church, said yesterday from his Baltimore home. "He was a man who gave himself totally for the cause of freedom."

Pub Date: 2/13/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.