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Rev. Vernon Carter, at 88; held vigil to fight racial inequality in schools

As spiritually resolute as he was diminutive in stature, the Rev. Vernon Carter tugged on his navy blue beret the morning of April 28, 1965, hung a hand-painted protest sign over his shoulders, and began walking back and forth in front of the Boston School Committee building on Beacon Street.

Offended by the dismissive way the committee had treated black community leaders two nights earlier, he decided keep a public vigil until officials addressed racial inequality in city schools. Pacing alone some days and nights, joined by hundreds on others, his protest became a rallying point as the Legislature debated and refined the historic Racial Imbalance Act of 1965.

"It doesn't take large numbers of men to do big things," he told the Boston Herald American in August that year. "There were 12 disciples. One man can save a city. I didn't have any idea this would last 100 days, but I knew that men can't call time on God's will, and I told my wife that if I put on a sign and began walking, I'd go all the way."

Rev. Carter died of cancer Tuesday in Vermont Respite House in Williston, Vt., near his daughter's home, where he had gone to stay when he knew he was dying. He was 88 and had previously lived in Cambridge and Boston.

"His camping out beside the School Committee building and parading out there 24 hours a day led to the passage of the bill," Paul Parks, a former secretary of education for Massachusetts, said of Rev. Carter's impact on the Racial Imbalance Act. "He played a significant role."

Rev. Carter's vigil became a 114-day chapter in the struggle to curtail segregation in Boston's schools. He ended his protest when the Legislature approved the Racial Imbalance Act and Governor John Volpe signed the bill, which required desegregation plans for schools with a minority student population exceeding 50 percent.

A decade later, US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ruled that Boston's schools were still unconstitutionally segregated. Born in part from a Lutheran minister's solitary picketing 10 years earlier, the busing that ensued from that ruling became a defining part of Boston's history.

"He was a passionate person, always a man of the cause," said his daughter Vernita Carter-Weller of South Burlington, Vt. "And he always needed a purpose to channel the passion."

In later years, his advocacy included helping Ethiopian refugees and the many who, like him, were of black and Native American ancestry. Rev. Carter, who was part Wampanoag and also went by the name Little Arrow, helped found Heritage Circle, a program that helped blacks who were part Native American establish their heritage.

But nothing else he did would be as far-reaching as his decision to take on the racism that was deeply ingrained in Boston's school system.

"I simply did this as an American citizen and as a parent," he told the Christian Science Monitor in July 1965, during the vigil. "And I also did this as a Christian who believed that the minds of people, or the hearts of people, must be changed in order to effect a solution for this problem."

Some days he walked in a tidy circle for 11 hours. On Sundays he preached at All Saints Lutheran Church in the South End, where he had been pastor for a decade. Soon after he began the protest, someone donated a van and parked it in front of the building, giving him a place to sleep and conduct church business during breaks from picketing.

He shaved each day inside the School Committee building and showered at a nearby Paulist chapel. Passersby brought him sandwiches and coffee for lunch. Most evenings he dined at the Parker House; the tab was covered by a Jewish philanthropist.

In the early days of Rev. Carter's vigil, cab drivers occasionally shouted curses. A disciple of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he did not respond in kind.

"His idol was Martin Luther King," his daughter said. "He had the same ideals and the same principles as Martin Luther King -- he had a huge picture of him on his desk at All Saints Church. He had the same philosophy of no violence, he had the same heart."

Said Rev. Carter: "I tried to build a circle of love around Boston and to narrow it to a point where people were forced to face it. Eventually they did."

And while his vigil educated many about racial injustice, he learned lessons, too.

"When white people bring you cold drinks and sandwiches, march with you, buy you meals, it changes you," he told the Herald American.

An earlier moment of change had come when, at 15, he experienced a spiritual awakening during a revival service in New Bedford, where he grew up. His mother had supported her three children by cleaning the house of a rich family and cleaning a YWCA. His father had abandoned the family.

After the revival service, Rev. Carter started preaching, long before he was ordained. An unimposing figure, he stood 5 feet tall.

"He wasn't happy with it, I'll tell you that," said his daughter Bernadette Carter-Williams of Burlington. "He had to be a very tall person in every other way. He was extremely determined, extremely opinionated, a very, very strong personality. He fought for justice for all people, not just for African-Americans."

He graduated from Wilberforce College in Ohio and from Boston University with a degree in theology and later received a master's degree from a Lutheran theological seminary.

In 1943 he married Arlene Anderson, whom he had met while preaching at his first pastorate in Lynn. Their marriage ended 22 years later, his daughters said, in part because of the amount of time he spent advocating for civil rights. The two had a time of healing in the last months of his life, though, when they both lived in Vermont with their daughters.

"To us this is miraculous," Carter-Weller said. "They spent that time reconciling. My father apologized for many things and asked for forgiveness."

Parks, who is in his 80s, spoke yesterday of how the circle of remaining civil rights activists from the 1960s is growing ever smaller.

"He was a man of deep faith," Parks said. "And for that we all respected him. He was just a remarkable person."

In addition to his two daughters, Rev. Carter leaves four grandsons; three granddaughters; two great-granddaughters; and two great-grandsons.

A funeral service will be held at 9 a.m. today in Bethel AME Church in New Bedford. Burial is private.

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