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Arlington civil rights activist Kent Carter remembered for his leadership, love of family

Arlington Branch NAACP First Vice President Kent Carter at a Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020 (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

On Saturday afternoon, Kent Carter left Arlington to celebrate his 40th birthday on Turks and Caicos, the Caribbean islands southeast of the Bahamas, with his long-time girlfriend.

He was supposed to fly back on Tuesday.

Instead, while riding in a shuttle back from a jet-skiing excursion on Sunday evening, an alleged gang member opened fire on the vehicle. The gunman shot and killed Carter and an employee of a local business and wounded three others. The shooting has been covered by both local and national media outlets, including The New York Times.

His last act was to protect his girlfriend of eight years, who survived with minor injuries.

“He shielded me from being shot,” his girlfriend, who requested we not use her name, tells ARLnow.

Now, Arlington is mourning Carter’s death and paying tribute to his legacy as a local civil rights leader, loving father and caring partner. His story has attracted national attention and an outpouring of support from community members and local realtors with whom he worked, elected officials and regional and national leaders of the NAACP.

“We are devastated to learn of Kent’s loss and will be keeping his family in our prayers,” Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol said in a statement to ARLnow. “Kent was a true leader in the Arlington community: knowledgeable and determined on civil rights issues and gifted at building relationships and coalitions.”

Carter, an Army veteran and a real estate agent by trade, was serving his second term as the First Vice-President of the Arlington branch of the NAACP, and the chair of the Criminal Justice Committee. He represented the NAACP on Arlington’s Police Practices Group, which came up with more than 100 ways to change policing in the county, and advocated for a Community Oversight Board with subpoena power, which was officially established last summer.

“Kent led that charge,” Julius “JD” Spain, president of the Arlington branch of the NAACP, told ARLnow. “Many citizens in Arlington will benefit from the hard work that Kent put in. Words alone aren’t enough to express the level of gratitude for someone who not just wore the nation’s cloth, but one who’s a servant leader.”

The NAACP Arlington branch president said his First Vice-President was reserved but could command a room. He was duty-bound to his advocacy work and didn’t care about the accolades.

Arlington’s elected officials are now working to recognize Carter’s efforts, including his work with lawmakers on a criminal justice reform package several years ago, through a memorial resolution led by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30). It is expected to go before the Virginia legislature in January.

The memorial resolution recognizes “the esteem we in the Arlington delegation held Mr. Carter in,” Ebbin told ARLnow. “It is also in recognition of the impact of Kent’s work for social justice and in service to our country, which extended far beyond the borders of Arlington.”

Carter was born Sept. 28, 1982, and grew up outside Knoxville, Tennessee. He joined the military in 2000 and was first deployed to the Pentagon just after 9/11 to provide security. In 2002, he deployed to Afghanistan for six months as a member of a U.S. Army Personal Security Detail. While in Afghanistan, he met his ex-wife, Melanie Bell-Carter, to whom he was married for 11 years.

Carter also served as an airborne Army police officer and later, as a special agent in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the U.S. Department of Commerce. Concurrent with his military career, he pursued his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice.

His lived experience as a Black man in the South, combined with his law enforcement experience, compelled him to tackle criminal justice reform where he could feel the impact directly: in his backyard in Arlington.

“He was one to stand up for those who couldn’t stand for themselves,” Bell-Carter told ARLnow in an email. “He frowned upon injustice and wanted to be a leader in changing how the country and the world treated people. Always one to look after those less fortunate.”

Carter effectively articulated why Arlington, a community without a reported history of police violence, still “needed to take a hard look at data and racial disparities within our criminal justice system and learn from national best practices,” Cristol said. “He was an especially substantive voice for change.”

Nicole Merlene, former ARLnow opinion columnist and a former candidate for a Virginia House of Delegates seat, said he applied himself out of love for his daughter.

“Kent was effective at making change in our community because he was deeply respected by everyone that knew him. He sought a better world for his daughter’s future and to give a voice for those who often didn’t have a seat at the table,” she said.

Bell-Carter and Carter’s girlfriend remember him as a doting father and family man.

“I am utterly heartbroken,” his girlfriend said. “I would nag him all day and he would still come home with flowers for me just to make me smile. He was my best friend, my everything. He was also hands down the best father to his 15 year old daughter. He was fiercely protective of her and did anything and everything to make sure she was happy.”

Bell-Carter says she most admires how much Carter loved and cared for his family, especially his mother and his daughter. He got involved in everything their daughter did, from academics to sports to orchestra, and joined her school’s Parent-Teacher Association, and shared much of his life with her.

“Every event or organization he was a member of or in support of, he exposed her to it,” Bell-Carter said. “They spent a lot of time together visiting museums, working out in the gym, and traveling,” as far as Bahrain, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jordan and Spain.

Travel was important to Carter and his longtime partner, too.

“We took quick, spontaneous trips like this one [to Turks and Caicos] all the time,” said his girlfriend.

A few years ago, Carter made a career change and became a realtor. Following his death, Keller Williams, the real estate firm to which he was associated, organized a GoFundMe campaign to support his daughter’s educational expenses and cover funeral-related expenses, which has raised more than $44,500 as of publication time.

“Kent was an incredible man who made everyone feel like he was their best friend,” said the fundraiser’s organizer, extolling his quick wit, selflessness, drive and humility, as well as his ability to connect people and hold them accountable to their goals.

“We could go on forever,” the post said. “His loss is hard for all of us to process, yet we keep going back to his voice and what he would say at any moment that you might start to fall apart. He would say, ‘stay strong.'”

That is what his partner says she is trying to do.

“Nothing will fill the hole this incident has left within me,” she said. “Everyday is a real struggle for us right now, but we’re taking it moment by moment.”

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