From activist to mayor and back again: Mickii Carter reflects on her years of political engagement

Brandon Paykamian • Sep 4, 2017 at 11:58 AM

Throughout Johnson City’s history, city officials have emerged from all walks of life to become the leaders who helped shape the city we know today.

Perhaps one of the most interesting figures in the city’s political history is Mickii Carter, a woman who went from activist to mayor in the 1990s.

Carter, who served on the Johnson City Commission from 1993-95 and as mayor until 1997, first became heavily involved in politics as an activist for environmental justice before entering the arena of city government.

According to Carter, she and other activists were opposed to the placement of Iris Glen Environmental Center in east Johnson City, which she and others believed was wrongfully placed due to its close proximity to public housing and streams.

“What got me into politics to begin with was years back when we were fighting the dump in Johnson City. I really thought Johnson City was a great place for everybody to live, but I just hadn’t seen the other side of things,” Carter said. “Then they decided to put the dump within 500 feet of public housing.”

This caused her to devote much of her time rallying others to protest against the proposal.

Carter described herself as a “late bloomer” when it came to activism. When she became involved in the early ’90s, she said she had a lot to learn.

“I always laughed and said, ‘If you would’ve looked up little goody-two-shoes in the dictionary, it would’ve said to see Mickii,’ ” she said. “I had never been trained in any kind of civil disobedience or anything, so I went down to the Highlanders School. I figured if you’re going to do something, you need to do it safely and do it right.”

Carter was undeterred, despite being new to organizing. She, along with other concerned community members opposed to the landfill’s placement, started going to City Commission meetings to raise their concerns. It was at this point Carter became increasingly engaged in networking with other activists, eventually taking her protests to the state Capitol with more than a dozen other environmentalist groups such as Greenpeace.

“I had gone to every City Commission meeting for a year before I was elected, because we had a protest every night for a year,” she said. “Every time the commission met, we had protests about the dump.”

It was during one of these protests that the future mayor had to be escorted out of a meeting.

“I was removed by the police from a commission meeting for saying, ‘Let us speak!’ and everybody else started chanting when I stood up and said that,” Carter said.

Shortly after this campaign, Carter decided she wanted to run for commissioner. She felt she could do more to change things from the inside.

“Getting elected wasn’t important — talking about the issues was what was most important (to me),” Carter said.

After campaigning by speaking at public forums, Carter was elected to the commission in 1993, which was known as the “Year of the Woman” due to the fact more women were elected to government positions than in previous years.

Once elected, Carter devoted much of her energy as a city official to issues she cared most about as an activist. Aside from environmental justice, she and other city officials “poured their hearts and souls” into the building of the current public library, which she described as a “great equalizer” for the community.

Carter, along with other commissioners, worked with other city officials to help introduce Safe Passage, an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence. 

In general, Carter was always on the lookout for what needed to be done. Just as she had done as an activist, she kept a “grassroots approach” to tackling the issues she cared about. She had hoped to see a black history museum built in the Carver community, but she said she couldn’t garner enough support on the issue at the time.

“I kept a pad on my car seat, and when I went by something and saw something that needed to be fixed, I’d call that department and say, ‘Hey, we need to take care of this,’ and it was wonderful because we often would,” Carter said.

Carter remembers her short time in city government as controversial, finding herself “butting heads with big money” and conservatism, despite being raised in a Republican household. She recalled receiving threatening phone calls and even experiencing violence directed toward her, citing an instance when an unknown gunman shot at her old furniture store.

After a turbulent four years in city government, Carter remained politically undeterred after she failed to get re-elected. Today, she focuses much of her energy on women’s rights, working with Ruth Taylor Read in the local women’s rights organization Women Matter Northeast Tennessee, a group that devotes much of its activism to reproductive rights. The group has worked to educate women and teens on sex education and advocate for victims of sexual assault throughout the region. In 2015, they also played a crucial role working with East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland to increase transparency in regard to public knowledge on sexual violence at the campus.

“We formed a sexual violence task force to look at issues and see what needed to be done,” she said. “We started to study what happened with sexual assault in the area, where our weak spots were and what could be done.

“So that’s how a lot of that at ETSU started coming about two years ago.”

The group continues to stay connected with the local progressive movement, networking with other women’s groups across the state and social justice organizations such as Tri-Cities Black Lives Matter and organizers from the Women’s March, among local activists. 

“Through common ground, we can build on things, and sometimes when you have two diametrically opposed ideas, you can still find something to build on. That’s what made this country great,” Carter said.

A staunch opponent of the Trump administration, Carter has continued to approach politics with the same energy she did when she was an activist in the early ’90s. She believes now is a time that political mobilization is especially important, citing what she sees as a current political assault on the rights of women and minorities.

“I’ve never seen a time like this. This is a time that calls for action. This is a time that calls for people to stand up and say, ‘No. That’s not right. What this man is doing to our country is not right,’ ” Carter said. “I think we need to speak up and be counted for. So many people for so long have been silent, not wanting to rock the boat.”

Her advice to other young activists who seek to bring about change in the age of Trump is simple — “keep an open mind” and push forward.

“Don’t burn out. Hang in there and stay informed,” she said.