Since then, Kamala ran for President, but was unsuccessful in making it to the primary stage. In the early days of her campaign, I wrote an article in the Root that went viral about the case for maintaining an open mind about her record as a prosecutor. One thing is for sure — people either love her or hate her. I often wonder why Senator Amy Klobucher is not facing the same brutal treatment that Kamala received about her past. Not that I advocate for tearing folks down, but if it is really about records and nothing else, there should be equal levels of scrutiny.
But that’s a post for another day.
While unfortunate, it was a joy to see Senator Harris dancing with her staff as her presidential campaign ended. It was a vision of grace and resilience in the face of intense disappointment; and generosity in attempting to lift the spirits of folks who worked so hard for the dream.
Thank you Senator Kamala Harris for continuing to be a Legal Diva of Color by blazing trials, and challenging us to do better daily!
Although the campaign trail has been absolutely insane, I could not let the month of February go without my “Legal Divas of Color” feature! Every Black History Month, I feature trailblazing female attorneys of color who laid the foundation for us to succeed. Today, I’m featuring Pamela Carter, who was the first African American woman elected to be a state attorney general in the nation!
Pamela Carter was born in 1949 in South Haven, Michigan. She received her undergraduate degree at University of Detroit; her Masters in Social Work at University of Michigan; and her law degree (Juris Doctor) at Indiana University School of Law. Before seeking statewide office, she worked for Indiana’s Secretary of State as an enforcement attorney.
She decided to take on an incumbent (Linley Pearson, no relation) for the seat of Indiana Attorney General. It was a brutal race and an uphill battle – she was a Democrat in a heavily Republican State. Only one African American had been elected to statewide office in Indiana before her. Nevertheless, she persisted! She won 52% – 48% in November of 1992.
Her election was historic. She became the first elected African American state Attorney General in the country; the first African American and the first female Attorney General in Indiana’s history; and the second African American to hold statewide office. She was also the first Democrat to serve in that post in 24 years.
Ms. Carter served from 1993-1997. She centered diversity in her administration by appointing women and minorities to senior positions where there were none previously. In reflecting on her term, she said “we had a fabulous office. We won more U.S. Supreme Court cases and more Best Brief Awards than any other attorney general’s office in the nation”.
Every year for Black History Month, I produce a series entitled “Legal Divas of Color”. The aim is to highlight female legal eagles of color, past and present, who blazed the trail for me (as well as many other sisters and brothers to follow).
Did you know that it was an African American female attorney that brought down mobster Lucky Luciano?
I surely did not!
A dear friend of mine Louise brought this to my attention on Facebook. She posted:
Just finished “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster” by Stephen L. Carter. The book is about Eunice Hunton Carter, the author’s grandmother. The granddaughter of slaves, she was a graduate of Smith College, and later became the first black woman to receive a law degree from Fordham University in New York City. In the mid-1930s when special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey selected twenty lawyers to help him clean up the city’s underworld, she was the only member of his team who was not a white male. And it was her work that brought down Lucky Luciano, the most powerful Mafia boss in history. This is a remarkable story about a truly remarkable woman.
So of course, I had to investigate!
Eunice Hunton Carter was born in 1899 in the city of Atlanta. Her parents, who were social activists, encouraged her to push boundaries. After graduating cum laude from Smith College with both undergraduate and graduate degrees in 1921, she pursed a career as a social worker. Later, Ms. Carter became the first African American woman to graduate from Fordham Law School in 1932.
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to “women’s court” to serve as a prosecutor of women perpetrated crimes — at the time, mostly prostitution. This made her the first African American female Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan.
While working in this court, Ms. Carter started to see a pattern — certain prostitutes kept getting arrested all over New York City, and were consistently bonded out by the same bail bondsmen, and represented by the same attorneys. The bondsmen and attorneys were connected to the mobster Charlie “Lucky” Luciano. Lucky Luciano created the infamous “Commission” — which brought all five mob families together to settle disputes and carve up territory. He was ruthless, running rackets and “whacking” or murdering anyone who stood in his way.
Armed with her observations, Ms. Carter spoke to her boss, special prosecutor Thomas Dewey, and they began to build a case. They were able to prove that the prostitutes had to kick back half of their earnings for protection as well as representation. This meant Luciano was benefiting from prostitution. Due to her hard work, they secured a guilty verdict, and Luciano was sentenced to 30-50 years in prison. He served 10 years before being deported to Italy (after cooperating with authorities).
Ms. Carter continued to serve as a prosecutor until 1945, when she entered private practice. She married Lisle Carter, Sr., who is one of the first African American dentists in New York. She also advised the United Nations on women’s issues and was active with the United Council of Negro Women and YMCA until her death in 1970.
Get the book by her grandson Stephen L. Carter here.
Ironically, when I first became a prosecutor, my goal was to do mob and drug trafficking cases. Life took me on a different path, but I’m thrilled to see a sister who blazed the trail and was an unsung heroine in the fight against organized crime. With the knowledge that the mob (in general) did not have a high opinion of African Americans or women, learning about her work made it that much sweeter.
Thank you Eunice Hunton Carter for being a true Legal Diva of Color!
Every Black History Month, I have done a series on this blog on the topic of “Legal Divas of Color”. The intent is to highlight African-American women who are doing great things in the legal field. Many serve as an inspiration to me to keep fighting the good fight and pushing the boundaries as far as they can go. It is also a reminder that the term “diva” is not a pejorative term; a diva is a woman who is strong, self-assured, and commands her worth.
When one thinks of the state of Alabama, sadly what comes to mind is the long history of racism and segregation. One thinks of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King; the actions of brutal police officers; and the last state in the country to overturn miscegenation laws as required by the Supreme Court.
However, Election Day 2016 showed that times are slowly changing in this southern state. 10 female attorneys of color rose to the highest positions that one can hold in the legal field in Jefferson County. The newly elected District Attorney is Lynneice Washington; and nine women of color were elected judges in Jefferson County. The nine new judges are Javan Patton, Debra Bennett Winston, Shera Craig Grant, Nakita “Niki” Perryman Blocton, Tamara Harris Johnson, Elisabeth French, Agnes Chappell, Brendette Brown Green and Annetta Verin.
District Attorney Lynneice Washington ran on a progressive platform of reforming/reducing the use of the death penalty, creating alternatives to incarceration for low level offenders, and creating a citizens-police advisory board. In doing so, she defeated the incumbent who had been appointed to the position after the retirement of his successor.
These wins are even more significant when you look at the fact that the current administration carried Alabama, and defeated Hillary Clinton resoundingly.
In this day and age, there seems to be a resurgence of the “tough on crime” rhetoric coming from the Justice Department and the White House. These policies have proven to be ineffective, leading to mass incarceration and no rehabilitation to be found in the criminal justice system. Now, there is a rise of a more progressive approach to criminal justice, which has shown to be effective in reducing recidivism and integrating people back into their communities. This is why it is more important than ever to elect progressive district attorneys and judges so that the whole defendant is being considered, as well as what is right for the victim, and the community at large. Local politics have become more critical in criminal justice than national policy. Groups such as the ACLU, and activists such as Shaun King are mounting voter education campaigns on this critical issue.
The wave of power seen in Jefferson County, Alabama is absolutely historic. I look upon these wins as hope for the future!
Congratulations ladies for being Legal Divas of Color.
Please see the bios of the nine judges here as well as a great piece detailing the District Attorney Lynneice Washington’s plans for the future of her county.
Usually, my Legal Divas of Color series features female attorneys that have been trailblazers in our world. But after seeing the Oscar nominated movie Loving [finally], I was moved to switch gears in my final Legal Diva of Color for Black History Month 2017.
Mildred Loving was a woman of color who married the love of her life.
Small problem: he was white, and it was the 50’s in America. This was at a time in history when there were laws for bidding interracial marriage (called miscegenation laws). The couple lived in Virginia, but went to Washington DC where interracial marriage was legal to get married. After being arrested (snatched out of their beds in the middle of the night while she was far along in her pregnancy with their first child), a long legal battle ensued. The Lovings pled guilty to violating the “Racial Integrity Act“, with the condition that they do not live in the state of Virginia for 25 years. The Lovings were close to their extended family; the forced separation began to take a toll. After urging from a family member, Mildred Loving wrote a letter to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He was not able to help her, but he referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union. The legal battle continued, winding its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. Finally, they received relief with the ability to live as man and wife in 1967.
The tragic ending of the story is that Richard Loving passed away seven years after they won their battle — killed by a drunk driver. Mildred never remarried, and lived in the house that he built for her until the day she passed away. When interviewed before she passed away in 2008, she said “I miss Richard. He took care of me”.
That was one of many times I was brought to tears during the course of the movie. It was very much a love story as well as a legal battle. The Lovings overcame so much just to be together but they did not get their “forever” story in this life.
When I heard that quote, I think back to this weekend where I was struggling with a really bad cold. As I was laying down mouth breathing, my husband calls to me from the next room “did you use Vicks vapor rub?” I couldn’t give much of an answer because I felt so terrible. He came in, rubbed the afflicted areas, gave me a kiss, and left the room to continue what he was doing. I think of those small tender moments in the context of love, and what Mildred was missing for those years after her Richard passed away.
The other emotional part of the movie for me was the involvement of the ACLU in fighting for this couple and allcouples to follow be able to marry who they love. The Lovingcase is part of the basis used to obtain the rights for gays to marry in America. This case has so many ripples; if the ACLU did not take on the battle, it would be a very different story. My husband and I, as well of hundreds of thousands of other couples since then, would not be able to legally be with who they love.
I am so proud to be a part of this organization. When asked during my interview why I wanted to come to the ACLU, I said quite simply “Loving vs. Virginia. If it was not for the ACLU, I would not be married to the love of my life.”
As an interesting footnote, most states struck down their miscegenation laws immediately after the Loving ruling. Alabama, however, was the last to do so in 2000. 40% of the population voted to keep this law, even though it was unconstitutional.
Although she is an unlikely heroine, Mildred Loving is one nonetheless. Mildred Loving, thank you for being a Legal Diva of color, paving the way for people to marry who they loveregardless of race or gender.