Talking to Mandy Carter is like curling up with a good book that you don’t want to end. To say that she has lived history is an understatement. She graduated high school in the middle of the civil rights era, the Cuban missile crisis, assassination of President Kennedy – and in the last six decades has remained active in multiple pursuits of equality. Once you hear her story, you’ll understand why she is our June Woman to Watch.
Mandy Carter was born in upstate New York and was raised in two orphanages and a foster home in her first 18 years. While that experience alone no doubt shaped her perspective, Carter says that her life trajectory was determined on one single day during her Junior Year of high school in 1965.
Her social studies teacher brought someone in from the American Friends Service Committee to speak about activism and a peaceful approach to the civil rights movement.
“As a predominantly white peace organization like the Quakers – to have then come in – and talk about themselves as a white peace group … They wanted to know how they could be allies of the civil rights movement,” she recalled to me. “That one 40 minute class changed my life. It planted a seed, and that’s why I’m talking to you here today.”
After that, she enrolled in a high school work camp the next summer in the Poconos Mountains and after that there was no looking back. Although the children’s home she lived in when she graduated offered to support her in her pursuit of a medical degree, Carter remained steadfast in her determination to focus and heal society, versus one individual body.
The Quaker teachings on the “power of one” and that each of us has a “moral compass” spoke to her as she began her life as an activist. Through her involvement, she also became aware of the teachings of Gandhi and the philosophies of the black, gay pacifist Bayard Rustin.
After graduating high school, she took a bus to New York City and from there ended up moving to San Francisco. She protested the Vietnam War and was arrested for her participation in a sit-in. At that moment she learned of the War Resister’s League and joined their effort.
To make a very long story short – her work at WRL took her to Durham in 1982, and from then on she’s been a gift to the Tar Heel State. She is a former Executive Director and one of the six co-founders of the North Carolina-based Southerners On New Ground (SONG).
Carter’s sexuality has also been a thread of her activism. She credits her life as a foster child with her ability to be honest about who she was at an early age.
“I didn’t have parents, to weigh in on things. I came out to myself – that was almost part 1, and then part 2 is when you know it. You come out and you say it out loud – not embarrassed, ashamed, or apologetic.”
She was was one of the two gay and lesbian people to speak at the 2003 Lincoln Memorial Rally for the 40th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She was one of the five National Co-Chairs of Obama LGBT Pride, the LGBT grassroots infrastructure for Barack Obama‘s 2008 presidential campaign. She focused on organizing grassroots networks, especially people of color throughout the South.
President Obama’s prioritization of LGBT equality at the top of his presidency is a marker of his legacy, to Carter.
“You think about a black man running for president, having no problem embracing our community and he won.”
The fact she has lived through so much key history in our country is not lost on Carter. She recalls how President Obama’s 2013 Inauguration Address encapsulated just what she has lived.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall, just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.” – President Barack Obama
I had to ask her about our country’s current political climate, and the fact that some of the legal and policy victories when it comes to racial LGBT equality are being undone by the current administration. To that, she responded with hope.
“Sometimes we lose forward. At the time it might look like, oh man. But if you put history in perspective, that makes a difference. Women are on the move. Young girls are on the move. Talk about a multi-generational movement,” she said. “This is why I have the hope – we have to do the work – intentionally – intergenerationally – and again looking at that how we move it forward.”
She told me social change is about changing the hearts and minds of our communities, and she’s still working towards that.
“I’ll keep being active – until I can’t any more.”
Thank you Mandy Carter. And we are honored to join you.