Candidate tries to build on her father's legacy of fighting for equality

September 08, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

IT'S HER eyes you notice first, the ones that gaze at you from the green-and-white poster.

I first saw it during one of those election forums at the War Memorial Plaza building. The eyes were dark brown, narrow and gave the woman an almost sleepy appearance. Then I looked at the woman's name: Jill Carter. Carter. I thought back years to where I had first seen those same eyes.

I was 19 and a student at Franklin and Marshall College. I had worked with a Walter Carter, who had those same eyes. He and I and Chester Wickwire, then chaplain of the Johns Hopkins University, had gathered to discuss anti-war strategies. I would see Walter Carter again at meetings of Baltimore's Black United Front.

One day in 1971, Carter stood in front of the BUF to give an update on how some fair-housing demonstrations were going. He told how two black deputy sheriffs approached the demonstrators with the intent to arrest them.

"We sure are glad you brothers got these jobs," Carter said he told the deputies. We all laughed at the irony. If it weren't for Carter, the brothers wouldn't have had those jobs.

He spoke for a few more minutes. Then his head dipped to his chest and his body crumpled to the floor.

Some in attendance, in those pre-CPR days, tried frantically to revive him. He died later at Maryland General Hospital. I remember calling Wickwire from the hospital to give him the terrible news.

Yes, I had seen Jill Carter's eyes before. Reading her campaign literature, I learned she was, indeed, Walter Carter's daughter, only 7 years old when her father died suddenly at age 48.

I made it a point to meet this woman. (I had met her brother Phil years ago when we both worked with the S.O.U.L. School, a West Baltimore black nationalist group of the late 1960s.)

"I was able to accept it when I was about 23," Jill Carter said of the loss. By then she had been accepted at Loyola, where her father taught. For more than 30 years she has pumped anyone who knew her father for any information she can get about him.

She invokes his memory constantly while stumping in the 41st District.

The constant refrain of Walter Carter in his daughter's speeches and campaign literature might lead some to think she's trying to run on his civil rights legacy. But if Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend can run on her father's at-best-questionable civil rights legacy, Jill Carter can run on her dad's, who at least had a real one.

Walter Carter was chairman of the Baltimore chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, which in the early 1960s was on the radical end of the civil rights movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

He was the Maryland coordinator for the 1963 March on Washington, rounding up about 15,000 area folks to attend.

When it came time to desegregate places in Ocean City and Westminster, Carter was right there leading the struggle. He helped in the demonstrations that led to the desegregation of Gwynn Oak Park in 1963. In 1965, he mobilized about 3,000 people to march for fair housing, a fight he was carrying on when he died of a heart attack.

But Walter Carter was also a scholar. He was on Loyola College's faculty when he died, and had a master's in social work from Howard University. He served two years in the Army during World War II, receiving five battle stars and attaining the rank of staff sergeant before he was discharged.

In 1968, Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III nominated Carter to run Baltimore's Community Action Agency, the city's anti-poverty office. The City Council rejected him by a vote of 10-8. D'Alesandro chided the City Council's "hostility" and suggested that his mayoral style was too "liberal" and aggressive" for what was then quite a conservative body, one which saw Carter as "too militant."

D'Alesandro and Carter should have expected the reaction. Wickwire was called a "pinko" by some of the same members of that City Council. Wickwire was the one who arranged for civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, the national organizer of the March on Washington, to speak at Hopkins. The reaction was near hysteria on the part of Hopkins' administration, and a Ku Klux Klan cross burned on the campus.

"I've been reminded that there were people who didn't like my father," Jill Carter said last week. She doesn't know the half of it. Walter Carter, Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., Wickwire and a host of others were despised by those who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century on the matter of race. Those activists fought and won the good fight.

Walter Carter's daughter faces a different fight. She's a long shot to win in Tuesday's election, but you have to figure Walter Carter is smiling somewhere.

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