Gordon Carey, a white civil rights worker who was a major if largely unheralded force in two of the most significant nonviolent actions of the civil rights movement — the lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides — died Nov. 27 in Arlington, Virginia. He was 89.
His daughter Ramona Carey said he had been in declining health in recent months and died of pneumonia in a hospital.
After the seminal sit-in by Black activists at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, Carey ran workshops and helped train hundreds of others in the tactics of civil disobedience. The trainees spread the sit-in movement to other states, and within a few months their peaceful assertion of their right to be served won them seats at many of these once all-white establishments. The sit-ins showcased the success of nonviolent protests and provided an organizing structure for other fights ahead.
The next year, when Carey and a Black colleague, Tom Gaither, were stranded during a snowstorm on a bus on the New Jersey Turnpike for 12 hours, they conceived the idea for the Freedom Rides.
These were groups of Black and white activists who rode together on interstate buses to draw attention to a landmark 1960 U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred segregation by race on all forms of public transportation. Bus companies were ignoring the law. The Freedom Riders, who included John Lewis, were met at several stops by violent white mobs who firebombed the buses and beat the riders, but their mission caught the public imagination and helped advance the historic struggle for racial equality.
“Carey is one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement,” said Thomas Healy, author of the 2021 book “Soul City,” about a short-lived utopian society in North Carolina by that name in which Carey played a prominent role. Healy interviewed Carey multiple times for his book.
Carey, son of a preacher, was a young pacifist employed by CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, which started out in 1942 as an interracial organization that pioneered the use of nonviolent direct action in the civil rights movement.
In the late 1950s, Carey was hired as a field secretary at CORE headquarters in New York City. When the organization learned about the sit-in in Greensboro, he headed to Durham, North Carolina, where similar sit-ins were underway. He joined one and was arrested, only to be bailed out a few hours later by Floyd McKissick, a young civil rights lawyer who would become the director of CORE and a close friend.
Carey, already schooled in civil disobedience, was asked to train others, many of them students, in how to sit in and how to respond if they were taunted or attacked. The essence of his message, guided by the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, was to turn the other cheek.
“You deny the opponent the basic means that he thinks he can use to overwhelm you,” he said in a 1985 interview conducted for the television documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.”
On his way back to New York from running a workshop in South Carolina, his bus was stuck in a snowstorm in New Jersey. He was carrying “The Life of Mahatma Gandhi,” a 1950 biography by Louis Fischer. As the hours dragged on, he and Gaither, also a CORE worker, read the book and talked about Gandhi’s 240-mile march to the sea in 1930 to protest Britain’s tax on salt.
They knew that CORE had sponsored a “Journey of Reconciliation” in 1947, in which Black and white activists had traveled by bus to test a 1946 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregated seating on public buses unconstitutional. The bus companies had ignored that ruling, too, but the protest had little effect. In 1960, the court handed down a broader decision, Boynton v. Virginia, banning segregation by race in any type of public transportation as well as at stations and terminals.
As they waited out the storm, Carey and Gaither became excited at the prospect of staging a more high-profile round of bus rides across the South. With the blessing of CORE, Carey organized them and Gaither mapped the routes and scouted them out.
The rides drew heavy media coverage, and the sight of peaceful riders being assaulted and jailed shocked the nation.
“The Freedom Rides propelled CORE to the forefront of the civil rights struggle,” Healy wrote.
But fissures were emerging between those committed to nonviolence and those committed to Black separatism. “Black members were increasingly hostile to white involvement,” Healy wrote, and many of the organization’s white activists, including Carey, were forced to resign.
“Carey recognized that it was untenable for white people to lead a movement for Black equality,” Healy said. “He was disappointed about essentially being forced out, but he saw it as a natural part of Black people taking control of their own destiny.”
Gordon Ray Carey was born Jan. 7, 1932, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His mother, Marguerite (Jellema) Carey, was a homemaker. His father, Howard Ray Carey, was a Methodist minister and a pacifist who in the 1940s was chair of a small CORE chapter in Grand Rapids.
Gordon Carey grew up with a commitment to social justice. As a boy, he met James Farmer, a principal founder of CORE and a leading figure in the civil rights movement. The family later moved to California, and Carey participated in projects with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group. He left high school in 1950 to work as a volunteer on a cargo ship carrying livestock to Japan as it recovered from World War II.
Back in California, after finishing high school, he registered for the draft as a conscientious objector during the Korean War and was exempted from military service by the draft board. But he felt guilty; if he didn’t go, he reasoned, someone else would be drafted in his place to fight. He proceeded to tell the draft board that the government did not have the authority to force anyone to serve.
This led the draft board to revoke his conscientious objector status and order him to report for induction in 1953. When he didn’t show, a federal judge issued an arrest warrant, and when FBI agents arrested him, he said he would not cooperate. The agents carried him to their car.
Carey’s act of passive resistance was so unusual at the time that The Los Angeles Times covered it on its front page.
He was sentenced to three years in a minimum-security prison for juvenile offenders near Tucson, Arizona, where he spent most of his time reading. The book that most influenced him, according to Healy, was Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God Is Within You,” an 1894 treatise on nonviolent resistance that had inspired Gandhi.
Carey was released after a year. He moved back to California and took classes at Pasadena City College, although he never graduated. He soon moved to New York City to work for CORE.
Carey married Betye Boyd in 1959. They were later divorced, and he married Karen Wilken in 1974. In addition to their daughter, Ramona, his wife survives him, as do his children from his first marriage, Kristina and Anthony Carey; Wilken’s daughters from her first marriage, Kristina Vetter and Stephanie Wilken; 10 grandchildren; one great-granddaughter; and Carey’s brother, Gene.
After Carey left CORE, he was McKissick’s right-hand man at Soul City, an attempt to build a racially integrated utopian community in rural Warren County, North Carolina, with Black people in charge.
McKissick secured millions of mostly public dollars to build Soul City and hired Carey to plan it. Carey believed deeply in the mission and moved his family there in 1974. But few others came, businesses were few, the town came under investigation for corruption and the dream eventually collapsed. Carey and his family left in 1981.
The most active phase of the civil rights movement was largely over by then, and many of its foot soldiers had gone back to quieter lives. Carey founded a software company in Burlington, North Carolina, that did work for community agencies and drug courts.
“There was no natural place for him in the civil rights movement anymore,” Ramona Carey said. “But he was still driven by social causes, and this business was a way for him to continue to work for social justice.”
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