Melvin Whitfield Carter, Jr. was born December 1948. His father was born 1923 in St. Paul at St. Joe’s Hospital, and his grandfather, Mim Grundy Carter, a musician, moved here from Paris, Texas in 1917 when “a great fire” burned their town under mysterious circumstances.
“They got out quickly. It could’ve been a Black thing.” The family came to St. Paul because brothers Uncle Mac and Uncle Foster were here working on the Fourth Street railroad.
Carter’s mother (deceased) was Billie Dove (nee Harris) of Shilton, Texas, who met Carter’s father when he was stationed in California. Melvin is the second born of six and the oldest of four sons. Carter’s family joined that St. Peter Claver Church; he attended elementary school there and went from there directly to Central High School.
“April 28, 1974 changed my frame of reference,” says Carter. It was a defining moment with profound impact in Carter’s life when his cousins Henry Moore, Jr. and Gregory were murdered. He said they died “valiantly in defense of and protection” of their sister from an assailant who was cleared and sent back to St. Louis in order to protect this family from further harm.
“We grew up together. We were part of each other. This incident redefined life for us. Before that life was frolicky, joyful, safe ‘Disneyland.’ It was the beginning of a carnival of tragedies escalating to today.”
Carter left what would become the crime scene within an hour of the event. “Devastation is what it is. I’m left with survivor’s guilt. I still relive the ‘if only’ questions,” and, because of this, he says, “I dedicate my life to peace.
“The impact was so meaningful.” Carter founded “Save our sons” (S.O.S.) “to prevent it from happening to others, to make my cousins’ death more meaningful.” As a “priest joins the priesthood” so Carter (WC), “joins the peace hood.”
He has had a mother call to say, “Thanks to you I still have a son.” He has had boys come back with success stories.
He has had a boy tell him of their time together, “You don’t know what it meant to me!”
“Oh, yes, I do,” he told the boy.
And he has had boys try to sabotage the mission, but he “kills them with kindness.”
“My [S.O.S.] work — that’s what keeps me alive. Police officers have a short life span; the life expectancy is 58 years.”
MSR: Describe how in your view the city has changed over the years with respect to growth and changes in their neighborhood(s) and in the African American community in general. Would you describe the city as better, worse, or the same in terms of being a good place for African Americans to live?
MC: The injection of I-94 changed the life of our community. Rondo was whole, a holistic place, a bubble. No kill[ings], no prison, no locks. We looked out for each other. Previous to my cousins’ death, these things seemed never to happen; this was the extreme exception.
It was wholesome, self-contained with its own Black businesses, but it was not all Black. Our home at 717 Rondo was an enormous three-story house [my father] inherited. Uncle Mac left it to him. It had steeples, imported windows, balconies, and guest rooms for boarders [who came] to town since Black folk weren’t always welcome in public accommodations. They could use the kitchen and bath.
Rondo was a busy street. You could hear diesels. My mother would call the store and send me over there with money pinned inside a glove and the store owner, Mr. Martin, would give me what she needed and pin the change inside the glove.
There was spirit, depth of community. Everyone knew each other. People felt responsible. When someone told you, “It’s time for you to go home,” you better [go]. You were under their authority and you better not detour.
What changed? Progress. I’m being facetious. One element that changed us was social deterioration through drug traffic. Drugs were introduced against our will, without our knowledge, and without our consent. People lost their minds, their sound-mindedness. Dope vampired our souls — dope fiends — Black-on-Black crime is fiendish.
My best friends were into [crime]. To this day I visit them in prison; they call me from prison, tell me “I love you.” One of them calls me while I’m at JDC [Juvenile Detention Center] when [I was] with S.O.S. clients and I ask him, “What shall I tell these Juvenile Detention Center boys?” [He said,] “Tell them to listen to their hearts.”
The first time as a teenager that Carter was offered the opportunity for scandalous behavior he turned and ran, and for that he was ostracized. He also says, “My father don’t play. He pulled me out of the pool hall, kicked my a**.”
The next time, at age 20, after his U.S. Navy service, he was spared from making this mistake by his buddies’ decision to exclude him from the proceedings. “They saw something in me.” Carter chose the other side of the law by serving 30 years with the St. Paul Police Department. “Police work validated my gift to function under attack, to discern danger, to be in their minds.”
MSR: What advice would you offer young African Americans living in the city for improving their lives and community? What needs to be done to make this a better place for African Americans to live and raise families?
MC: Get your heart and brains in alignment. I tell my S.O.S. [clients] to create alternatives by “switching systems.” Racism is a raging bull on the railroad tracks. Get up off the tracks. Insults and threats are my best feedback. For example, they would leave the lunch table when I sat down. Now I got it to myself.
Channel anger as a resource. Convert it to constructive use. Turn the negative anger into a positive through athletics, the gym, sports for the body, and creativity, for example, music for the heart, and, study read for the mind.
Get up early and be still. “Exit the kill zone” — that’s a police term. There is no shortage of atrocities. Your challenge is to elevate yourself and your surroundings rather than succumb or surrender to the venom and corruption. Be the love, be the honor and the dignity.
I recommend reading the “Book of Proverbs” for wisdom, understanding, and discipline. Then apply it. I would recommend they listen to Sly & the Family Stone, “We got to live together” [lyrics from “Everyday People”], and “What the world needs now is love, sweet love” [song written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach].
Carter quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We may have come over on different ships, but we are all in the same boat now” and, “Either we begin as brothers, or we separate as fools.”
“There is an art, skill, and a science to being a Black man in America,” Carter adds. “My son didn’t do it alone [and] neither did I. I had my dad, my uncles, and my neighbors. Everybody is designed to grow, to learn. Be your own success.”
Elizabeth Ellis welcomes readers’ responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.