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Walter C. Carrington, US ambassador and lifelong civil rights activist, dies at 90

Mr. Carrington, discussing at Boston City Hall the renaming of Yawkey Way near Fenway.
Mr. Carrington, discussing at Boston City Hall the renaming of Yawkey Way near Fenway.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

As US ambassador to Senegal and Nigeria, and previously as a Peace Corps director, Walter C. Carrington was drawn again and again to Africa.

“The land of my fathers,” he once wrote, “has intrigued me ever since as a boy I pondered the poet Countee Cullen’s question — ‘What is Africa to me?’ "

A diplomat whose lifelong activism ranged from combating Boston’s bigotry to risking his life while advocating for human rights in Nigeria, Mr. Carrington was 90 when he died Tuesday.

He had lived in Newton for about 18 years and had remained active as a scholar, once writing: “I have no plans to retire from the fray.”

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Though his work on behalf of civil rights and human rights was global, Mr. Carrington’s beliefs were forged in an Everett childhood and at Harvard University, where he was one of four Black students in his class. In those years, he became friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; as an undergraduate he once debated Malcolm X.

After graduating from Harvard Law School and becoming the youngest-ever member of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, Mr. Carrington was a leader of a late-1950s investigation of the Boston Red Sox, which was Major League Baseball’s last all-white team, integrating a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

His work in Africa became his most enduring legacy, however, notably as ambassador to Senegal at the end of President Carter’s administration and, more dramatically, as President Clinton’s ambassador to Nigeria.

In the latter role, Mr. Carrington criticized human rights abuses and advocated for democracy in Nigeria during the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha.

At a September 1997 gathering in Lagos to honor Mr. Carrington as he prepared to leave the ambassador post and return to Harvard for a fellowship, “heavily-armed policemen burst into a well-attended reception,” The New York Times reported.

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Facing down guns, Mr. Carrington didn’t flinch, and his courage left a lasting impression.

“We owe him,” the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, a Nobel laureate in literature, said in an e-mail to Dr. Arese Ukpoma Carrington after hearing of her husband’s death.

“It was my pride to be side by side with him as he fought for democracy and human rights in Nigeria,” Dr. Carrington, a physician, public health consultant, and human rights advocate who is from Nigeria, said of her husband.

Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, praised Mr. Carrington’s efforts to encourage the nation’s return of democracy.

“The story of the Nigerian democracy under the Fourth Republic will not be complete without a mention of the heroic roles of the likes of Ambassador Carrington,Buhari said in a statement released to the media in Nigeria.

Amid such accomplishments, Mr. Carrington “was one of the most distinguished, yet genuinely humble, persons I’ve ever known,” Tibor P. Nagy Jr., assistant secretary, Bureau of African Affairs for the US State Department, wrote in an e-mail.

“I’ve never known anyone to represent America — most especially the America which should be — better than Walter,” Nagy added.

Long before Mr. Carrington was a diplomat who risked his safety advocating for human rights, he had confronted difficult odds in his own life.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor who, like Soyinka, was a longtime friend of Mr. Carrington, noted that “when Walter attended Harvard College, gaining admission for a Black person was something of a statistical miracle, signifying — in a word — brilliance. And the commitment to leadership within the Black community, a commitment that Walter filled with grace, elegance, and aplomb.”

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J. Keith Motley, chancellor emeritus of the University of Massachusetts Boston, called Mr. Carrington a “scholar activist, humanitarian, and world-class human being,” someone whom Motley often invited to speak at the university about Africa and other subjects.

“With a twinkle in his eye,” Motley recalled, “he would gently ease into the conversations as if it was a fireside chat — talking politics, human rights, culture, and issues that slowly emerged into a master class that could go on for hours beyond the appointed time because of his uncanny ability to connect with the audience through storytelling.”

Walter Charles Carrington was born in New York City on July 24, 1930, and grew up in Everett, the older of two siblings. He was young when the marriage of his parents, Walter R. Carrington and Marjorie Irene Hayes, ended.

Marjorie became an activist as she worked as a waitress while raising Mr. Carrington and his sister, Marilyn Carrington. Mr. Carrington later recalled that in his mother’s final months alive, she called to encourage him to make picket signs for a protest waitresses were staging.

Marilyn, who died in 2006, was a civil rights activist on many fronts, including advocating for equitable health care for Black people and other people of color and particularly for women.

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Mr. Carrington graduated from Everett High School in 1948 and from Harvard College in 1952. He founded Harvard’s NAACP chapter and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1955, before serving in the Army, posted in West Germany.

In a December 1955 letter to his friend King, Mr. Carrington wrote: “It seems to me that the possibilities of large scale, well disciplined, non-violent civil disobedience to segregation laws are enormous. It gives more people a sense of participating in a cause than any other technique I know of.”

And while he hoped King would make use of such Gandhi-inspired protests, Mr. Carrington conceded that he’d have “to sit on the sidelines” during his Army years. “Uncle Sam has his hands on me,” he quipped, “and it’s next to fatal to practice a little civil disobedience on a sergeant.”

Mr. Carrington (third from right), then vice president of the Boston NAACP branch, with (from left) Rheable M. Edwards, chairwoman of the Boston branch of the NAACP housing committee; Jack E. Woods, specialist in housing; Ellen Tarry, regional intergroup relations official with the Housing and Home Finance Agency; Melnea Cass, president of the Boston NAACP branch; and Boston Development Administrator Edward J. Logue. The group  was meeting on the problems of urban renewal in Lower Roxbury.
Mr. Carrington (third from right), then vice president of the Boston NAACP branch, with (from left) Rheable M. Edwards, chairwoman of the Boston branch of the NAACP housing committee; Jack E. Woods, specialist in housing; Ellen Tarry, regional intergroup relations official with the Housing and Home Finance Agency; Melnea Cass, president of the Boston NAACP branch; and Boston Development Administrator Edward J. Logue. The group was meeting on the problems of urban renewal in Lower Roxbury.John J. Landers/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

After his role in investigating racism in the Red Sox organization, just before the team made Pumpsie Green its first Black player, Mr. Carrington moved into a series of Peace Corps jobs, directing operations in Tunisia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone.

His first marriage, to Cynthia Fitten, ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Joyce Ladner. Mr. Carrington and Ladner had a son, Thomas, who now lives in Washington, D.C.

While serving as US ambassador during turbulent times in Nigeria, “I’ve been in the midst of the storm, criticized by the government for continually hectoring them on their human rights abuses,” he wrote in 1997.

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Writing in 2002 for the 50th anniversary report of his Harvard class, Mr. Carrington took note of another major change during his time in Nigeria.

“Many Black Americans go to Africa to find their heritage,” he wrote. “I went and found my destiny, when a few weeks after arriving in Nigeria I met my wife, Arese, a medical doctor. Through all those traumatic times she was at my side in spite of the potential risks to her and to her family.”

They married in 1995.

“We had this never-ending love, a strong bond,” she said. “We had this trust and respect for each other, and this unity. The magnitude of the loss is something that I cannot even bear to think about.”

Mr. Carrington, with his wife, Dr. Arese Carrington.
Mr. Carrington, with his wife, Dr. Arese Carrington.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

In addition to his wife, son, and grandson, Mr. Carrington leaves a daughter, Temisan Oyowe Carrington of Newton, and his grandson, Reginald. Arrangements are being handled by J.S. Waterman Langone Chapel.

Mr. Carrington had also been a senior adviser on the transition team when Clinton was elected president, and he had taught at schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Simmons University, Marquette University, and Howard University, where he directed the international affairs department.

Even after he returned to the United States from Nigeria, “Walter has remained both comrade and friend,” Soyinka wrote in an e-mailed tribute.

Mr. Carrington, he added, “was of that breed that provokes the time-honored, nostalgic sentiment, a cliche that is, however, grounded in unvarnished truth: ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’ "


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.