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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 25 May 2023

Former Oregon State Senator Margaret Carter was the commencement speaker for Willamette University's Salem undergraduate commencement ceremony, which took place on Sunday, May 21.

Carter received an Honorary Doctorate of Public Service from Willamette University President Steve Thorsett before addressing the crowd of about 3,000 guests. During her speech, Carter told the graduates about the importance of service, referring to Willamette's motto, "not unto ourselves alone are we born." 

"Along with laughter, another way to strengthen your heart is to reach down and lift people up.

"You are blessed with a degree from one of America’s outstanding universities—a university with the motto 'Not unto ourselves alone are we born.' My hope is that whatever path you choose in life, part of your mission will be to turn those words into action. To give back. To volunteer. To share your time and talents with organizations that make our communities better. And, perhaps, as so many Willamette graduates have done before you, to serve in elective office."

margaret carter willamette university medMargaret Carter receives an Honorary Doctorate of Public Service from Willamette University President Steve Thorsett May 21, 2023 in Salem, Oregon. (Photo courtesy Willamette University)

Margaret Carter

In 1984, Margaret Carter became the first Black woman to be elected to the Oregon State Legislature. She served as the chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon (1996) and was the first African American woman to hold such an office west of the Mississippi. Carter was also the first African American to serve as president pro tempore in the Oregon State Senate and was the first African American to co-chair of Ways and Means.

Margaret Carter was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on December 29, 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, the eighth of nine children. Despite Carter’s impoverished, segregated childhood, she remembered being “civically engaged, academically engaged, spiritually engaged, which today I see as a very balanced life.”

Carter worked for twenty-seven years as a counselor and faculty member at Portland Community College (PCC). In 1983, a group of business and community leaders recruited her to run for the legislature to represent House District 18 in northeast Portland. The race piqued her interest because of her background in civic engagement.

She also served as president and CEO of the Urban League of Portland from 1999 to 2002 and was president of the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women.

While in office, Carter was the driving force behind 1985 legislation to make Martin Luther King Jr. a state holiday in Oregon, led successful South African anti-apartheid divestment legislation, led the effort around a law creating enterprise zones designed to attract business to economically depressed areas, and was a force behind legislation aimed at retraining workers and upgrading the skills of the Oregon workforce.

She resigned from the Senate to take the position of Deputy Director for Human Services Programs at the Oregon Department of Human Services, a job she held until her retirement in 2014. Since then, she has been a volunteer at the Albina DHS office and the PCC skills center, which was named for her. Carter has garnered many honors, including Oregon Women of Achievement (1997), OSU Alumni Fellows Award (2010), Oregon Historical Society’s Board of Directors (2012), and the Jesse Richardson Foundation Ageless Award (2017). In 2020, she was honored by USA Today and the Statesman Journal as one of ten Oregon “Women of the Century.”

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