Mandy Carter – Her Journey Continues
By Clarence J. Fluker
“Who would have thought that 50 years later a Black man would be sitting in that house?” wonders Mandy Carter when asked about the 50th Anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She shakes her head in wonderful bewilderment. In 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, John F. Kennedy was the President of the United States. The ugliest forms of Jim Crow segregation still existed keeping African Americans from voting booths. At that time it was unimaginable that an African American could be elected to the highest office in the land. The journey of this nation over the last fifty years is no less than remarkable, as are the stories of the men, women and youth who have served tirelessly, with no fame and no glory, pushing, pulling and at times dragging the country to a higher level of consciousness.
Mandy Carter, age 65, has been among those pushing and pulling this nation towards equality for the last 45 years. Placed in the care of the state not long after her birth, Mandy was raised in foster care in upstate New York. She attended Mt. Pleasant High School where her life was forever changed during her senior year when a speaker from the American Friends Service Committee visited her classroom. His message about their core values of equality and justice resonated with her. He impressed on her their strong belief in the power of one, that “Each and every single one of us has the opportunity to impact change.” It was an idea that resonated with Mandy, convincing her that she too had the power to change her station in life and the world in which she lived.
A good student with support from the Schenectady Children’s Home, she was allowed to attend the American Friend Service Committee work camps and learn more about the teachings of Mahatma Ghandi and others organizing and participating in the growing social justice movement sweeping the United States. One of the men she learned about was Bayard Rustin, the chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington, who happened to also be an openly Black gay man. Rustin had been active in the movement for civil rights and nonviolence for years. In 1947, he helped organize the Journey of Reconciliation which would later become a model for nonviolent protests of the 1960’s. Rustin was young when he started his work in the movement. A young Mandy Carter admired him and recognized even then that they had a similar journey.
After graduating high school in 1966, Carter attended junior college for a semester before deciding that her life was calling and she needed to answer. She spent the summer of 67’ living in New York City and working for Timothy Leary at the League for Spiritual Discovery. When summer ended, her journey took her further away. She hitchhiked across the country with three friends to San Francisco, California. By this time Carter was also discovering more of whom she was as a Black lesbian. Empowered by the ability to define herself, it was then she decided how she wanted to show up in the world and what she wanted to contribute to it.
Her commitment to the global movement for peace and justice was solidified in 1968, which she says was the turning point for her. During that year she spent time at the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence where she deepened her understanding of social justice and nonviolent direct action. The world was abuzz that year with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The Vietnam War was raging. The Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to demand economic justice for all Americans regardless of race, in which Mandy participated in, took place on the National Mall. After submitting a list of demands to Congress to improve the plight of the poor, they set up a 3,000 person tent city. In all forms, protests and resistance were swelling. It was in that same year that athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms in a black power salute after winning the gold and bronze medals in the Olympic men’s 200 meters in Mexico City.
Since 1968, Mandy hasn’t turned back. She has moved forward, ushering many with her. In 1983, she walked from Durham, North Carolina to Seneca, New York as part of the Women’s Peace Walk. She is a former Executive Director and one of the six co-founders of the Durham-based Southerners On New Ground (SONG), an organization that integrates work against homophobia into freedom struggles in the South. Carter has served as campaign manager for North Carolina’s Senate Vote ’90 and Mobilization ’96 political action committees; serving again as campaign manager for Florida Vote/Equal Voice based in Miami. Additionally, Carter served one term as a North Carolina Member-At-Large of the Democratic National Committee, and a member of both their Gay and Lesbian Caucus and the Black Caucuses. Her work on progressive human rights causes crosses decades and geographic boundaries.
In 2013, working with another organization that she helped to found, the National Black Justice Coalition, she led their participation in the Bayard Rustin Commemoration Project. The project was a multi-tiered public education, awareness and action campaign. It taught individuals about the life and work of Rustin and directed them to petition for Rustin to be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In August of 2013, The White House announced Mr. Rustin will posthumously be awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor one can receive. While Carter and Rustin never met, this announcement was indeed another moment of intersection.
When probed about what the movement for the Black gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community looks like today, Carter responds with a question, “For our LGBT community, black or otherwise, the question we have to ask ourselves, it is a question, opportunity and a challenge – are we about justice or just us? Are we concerned about the LGBT movement or the broader movement that includes the LGBT movement? This includes race and class.”
“All those noises we hear in opposition to women, people of color, and LGBTs are the sounds of history getting ready to move on,” says Carter. “That push back is all the folks getting nervous.”
Fifty years after the March on Washington, and more than 40 years since she left home, Carter shares the advice that she would give to her 18 year old self:
“Always keep yourself open to the possibilities of what can be. Be humble. Dare to dream. Dare to think that things are possible. Ask questions. Remember the importance of the word AND. It is not an either or world. When you put yourself at this or that you limit yourself. Every time you add an “and” you expand the possibilities. The word journey is important. If you don’t know what the journey is for a person then you operate out of a lot of assumptions.”