Carter, Mandy

Rose Norman interviewed Mandy Carter by phone on March 26, 2013.

Biographical Information

Mandy Carter (b.1948 ) was born and raised in upstate New York and dates her long career as a non-violent human rights activist from 1969, with War Resisters League/West in San Francisco. She moved to Durham, NC, in 1982, and has organized many LGBT pride events there, including serving on the steering committee for the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbians and Gays. As a lifelong social and economic justice organizer, she has an impressive record. In 1990, she was campaign manager for an NC Senate Vote ’90 PAC that attempted to defeat Senator Jesse Helms. In 1993, she was one of six co-founders of Southerners On New Ground (SONG). In 2003, she was a co-founder of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC). In 2005, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as part of the 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005 in order to recognize, make visible and celebrate the impressive and valuable, yet often invisible peace work of thousands of women around the world (www.1000peacewomen.org). In 2012, she was inducted into the International Federation of Black Prides- Black LGBT Hall of Fame. She is currently National Coordinator of the Bayard Rustin 2013 Commemoration Project of the National Black Justice Coalition.

On Feminist Activism

Tell us a little about what got you into social justice activism, and what brought you to the South.

"I was born in Albany, New York, and I think the most important thing to know about my upbringing is that I was a ward of the state of New York for the first 18 years of my life. Shortly after I was born our mother left and never came back. So me, my brother Ronny, and sister Dolores were in an orphanage in Albany and then we got split up when we were all living in the foster home. I was in raised in two orphanages and one foster home—Albany Children’s Home, Schenectady Children’s Home, and in between a foster home in Chatham Center, NY, for four years."

"What is pivotal to know about how I got involved with what I’m doing now is something that happened in high school. The Schenectady Children’s Home mainstreamed us into the school system, so I went to Mount Pleasant High School in Schenectady, graduating in 1966. Sometime the year before I graduated, a history teacher of ours brought in someone from the American Friends Service Committee, and that one 40-minute class changed my life. I’d never heard of Quakers or AFSC, and the speaker was just a young staffer from the local AFSC office... He talked about the Quakers, and how they were down South as white allies working in the civil rights movement. He said that one of the tenets of Quakerism is the concept of the power of one, that every single person has the capacity to impact change. He also talked about how, if your fundamental philosophy is equality and justice for all, that means that any particular time, whatever your particular issue, it keeps your work current and relevant. I didn’t quite get that at the time, but it really stuck with me. We’d just had the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when we we’re doing duck and cover air raid drills in school, and then there was the 1963 Kennedy assassination. All this is rolling around in my mind, and then he comes in talking about the power of one, equality and justice for all. And then, at the end of his presentation, he told us about their AFSC High School Work Camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. I raised my hand and said I’d like to go, and the rest is history."

"It was going to that AFSC summer camp for a week that took me from hearing great ideas to doing something about it. That experience is the key reason that I do what I do now. We read about Gandhi, non-violence, and there was a young, white folk-singing couple (Guy and Candie Carawan) from the Highlander Center. I’d never heard of them or the Highlander Center, but I was just fixated on what they were doing in the South. They were singing and recording songs of the civil rights movement, so what was just something in the news was made real for me by them. And they told us about the Institute For the Study of Non-Violence, run by Joan Baez and Ira Sandperl, which I ended up going to. Later, after attending it, I got arrested for protesting the Vietnam War, went to jail in 1967, and then got my first job, which was at the War Resister’s League in San Francisco, in 1969."

So civil rights activism and anti-war activism were connected for you by the Quakers? How did feminism get in there?

"Do you remember that speech Dr. Martin Luther King gave –not the 1963 speech at the March on Washington, but the one on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York? He talked about how we have to challenge what we’re doing in Vietnam. He said, how can you ask Black men to go thousands of miles to another country of color, Vietnam, and kill or be killed in the name of democracy, when they didn’t have it when they left this country, and they didn’t have it when they got back. A lot of us who were just a little too young for the civil rights movement, but were very involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement, heard that and made the connection. I think that was a transformative moment for the country. Here’s a Black man who was leading the civil rights movement down South saying now we have to talk about the war in Vietnam against a backdrop of Black men, but he was also talking about economic justice issues. He was saying that if we fight for the right to sit at a lunch counter, do we have any money in our pocket to buy something once we’re there? That led to the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 that I participated in."

"And in San Francisco, the anti-war movement was very male-dominated. We had the draft at that time, so meeting after meeting, they were run by men. Then we had a meeting down in Palo Alto, and they were passing around a sign-up sheet, and a woman friend of mine looked at it and said, “There’s nothing but penises on this list!” For me, that made the point crystal clear. A lot of women active in the anti-Vietnam war movement were asking what they could do. There was a great group out of Boston called RESIST. They wanted to figure out how to complement the draft resistance movement, which was all men, with people who couldn’t be drafted, like women and men who were too old. That became a point where we felt we could have a voice and visibility. Author/pacifist Barbara Deming made a good point about the anti-war movement. She said that it was not only the soldiers, but the Vietnamese women and children who were harmed by that war, by all the things that happen in war, the rapes and so on."

"And also note that WRL was started in 1923 by three women [Jessie Wallace Hughan, Tracy Mygatt, and Frances Witherspoon]. Thus for me, early feminism was swirling around in the WRL. We had some very strong, powerful women in the War Resisters League. Never a meeting would happen without equal voices in the room."

On moving to San Francisco

How did you get from upstate New York to San Francisco, and then from San Francisco to Durham, where you have lived since 1982?

"After I graduated high school the Schenectady Children’s Home said that they would pay for my entire college education. This was extraordinary because you age out of the welfare system when you turn 18, but they were willing to put me through college if I got admitted and stayed in college. I tried to do that, but by then I had heard about the Quakers and the anti-war movement, and I had attended that AFSC summer camp. I did get admitted to Hudson Valley Community College (part of the SUNY system), but it just wasn't what I wanted to be doing then. I was living in the YWCA in Troy, NY, and to me it was just one more institution that I was living in. And, I felt that I really needed to get away from institutions and possibly pursue getting involved in social justice activism."

"So I dropped out of Junior College and took a bus to New York City, hoping to get a job. That was the summer of 1967, and I had $80 in my pocket, which soon ran out. I was walking in the West Village one day, and saw a sign in a window that said “Free Lunch.” It turned out to be a place run by Timothy Leary, the well known LSD advocate. I got a job there for the summer in exchange for a place to live and answering the phone between the hours of 8 at night and 8 in the morning. To tell people when they called about having bad LSD trips how to come down from them. It was an eye-opening and great summer for me!"

"Then, at the end of the summer three of us decided to hitchhike to San Francisco, because that’s where it was happening. At that time, when you went to San Francisco like that you went directly to the Haight Ashbury switchboard for a place to stay. So three of us went down to the Haight Ashbury switchboard and got a phone number of a guy named Vincent O’Connor. Of all the people we could have been sent to, Vincent O’Connor turned out to be a draft resister, working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. He let me stay on because I was interested in non-violence and what was going on, and I volunteered at the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Then I got the opportunity to go down to the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence with Ira Sandperl and Joan Baez. That took me to a "civil disobedience action" at the Oakland Induction Center, from which I landed in jail with 100 other people (December 1967), and Jane Shulman came over to me and asked if I’d ever heard of the War Resisters League. I never had, so she invited me to a potluck they were having. I went, that led to stuffing envelopes, and to a couple of trips to hear more about WRL. I went to jail again, and then the WRL had an opening for a paid position, and I got it. That was my first Movement job. San Francisco was right across the bridge from the Oakland Induction Center, where every single man going to Vietnam had to go."

"That’s how I got to Durham, too. When I decided to leave San Francisco, I wanted to move back east of the Mississippi, because I missed the four seasons. So I asked the War Resisters League where they had an office, and the one that had an opening was in Durham, NC, the War Resisters League’s Southeast office. I interviewed and got the job."

When in your life did she realize that you wanted to work on sexual orientation along with the race and class issues? Were their specific life experiences or events that led to it?

"When I was in San Francisco working for the War Resisters League, I knew gay men who saw themselves as people who believed in pacifism who were gay. In the beginning, I was too young to go to the lesbian bars (you had to be 21), which is where you met other lesbians and also the breeding ground for queer liberation. [Mandy later managed two lesbian bars, Maud’s and then Amelia’s.] I was doing both kinds of activism. I’m a lesbian, but my world is defined by more than being a lesbian. I care about domestic violence. I care about fighting the Klan. I don’t mind being called a “lesbian-feminist activist.” I guess I think of myself as a Southern black lesbian social justice activist. Feminism is certainly part of it, but I wouldn’t tag it that way."

On the organization of SONG

Tell us your story about how SONG started and why you think it has lasted so long.

"SONG came out of the 1993 Creating Change Conference, a conference that the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force does every year. That year, Ivy Young, a Black lesbian working for the NGLTF, called me and said they’d just lost the site for that year’s conference and could they bring it to Durham. This would be the first time they had the conference in the South. I enthusiastically agreed, knowing what a good base of gay and lesbian activists we had in the area. Then we started getting phone calls from people coming to the conference asking things like, “Is there an airport down there?” and “Why are we holding it in North Carolina? Isn't that where Jesse Helms is from?” I told them “We’re holding it in North Carolina precisely because that’s where Jesse Helms is from!” The anti-Southern bias was unbelievable. So we thought that maybe a few of us who knew each other would offer a workshop on what it means to be living and organizing in the South as gay people, as lesbians. Suzanne Pharr, Mab Segrest, Pat Hussain, and I organized that workshop. That one workshop, and also Mab’s amazing plenary speech for the conference on why we as LGBT people have to care about NAFTA and other “non-gay” issues led to SONG.
[Footnote: The speech, “A Bridge, Not a Wedge,”was published in Segrest’s Memoir of a Race Traitor, pp 229-246, 1994]. That was the kernel of the dream of what is still going on with SONG, a workshop that happened because of backlash against being in the South! Later we brought in Pam McMichael (who was organizing around labor issues in Kentucky) as the sixth of the SONG co-founders." [Mandy later corrected this to say that Pam McMichael participated in the 1993 Creating Change and that Joan Garner was the sixth co-founder brought in later].

"Our original statement of purpose that came out of that workshop was “building transformative models of organizing in the South” that would connect race, class, culture, gender, sexual orientation” and I think we added the phrase “gender identity.” The key words are “transformative models of organizing.” It wasn't just about being Southern, or gay, or lesbian. If you took all that and looked at what you were organizing around, you could see the connections."

"A key thing that was important for the six of us was how to take what we were working on and show that it wasn't just about us, it wasn't just about being a lesbian, or a Southerner—what would be the thing we could take anywhere in the South that would let us sit at a number of different tables, that were not gay. One of the first things we did was to pick a non-gay issue around economic justice. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride around farm labor was one of the intentional things we did, hooking up the African American history of freedom rides in the South, with the farm labor organizing that was Latino/Latina. Another was the Mount Olive pickle boycott. SONG was at that table. We had to intentionally go to somewhere else that wasn’t just about being gay, and that let people understand that being gay isn't just about being gay. It could be around broader issues than sexual orientation. Also, for a lot of groups like the farm labor groups, there are a lot of gay and lesbian members, and this approach lets them bring all of who they are to what they do. That has been a touchstone for SONG."

"Right now, we are still in coalition with immigrant organizing in Georgia and Alabama. People see we show up, we’re there, we’re serious, we mean it. They see that we’re there because of their issue, and that we all understand the justice issue across all those different levels. SONG will be a constant partner in this effort. We don’t want them to join us, them to be us—we want to see how we can move all of us forward."

"There were two critical points in our growth. First, we realized it’s not just black/white any more, and it’s not just women. The other was co-directorships—always have co-directors, not just one. The first were Pat Hussain, a Black woman in Atlanta, and Pam McMichael, a white lesbian living in Kentucky. So we decided to hire a Black gay man, Craig Washington, who took over for Pat. And we also started looking for non-black, non-white people. The current co-director is Paulina Helm-Hernandez, who came from the Highlander Center, and Caitlin Breedlove."

"The key word for the War Resisters League was intentional. That for me, if I've learned nothing else over the years, is what I brought to SONG. It was intentional that we started with three black and three white women. It was intentional that we looked for intersections of –isms. I think that where we are now—all we've done—that word to me is the essence of what is and needs to be right now. That’s one reason SONG has carried on for 20 years now. Another reason is that we have so many people we partner with in the South. And I think the South is much more conducive to cooperating without competing."

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