After earning the honor as salutatorian in high school, she received scholarships to Grambling State University where she then briefly attended before meeting who would become her first husband.
She served in the Oregon House of Representatives until 1999, and then in the Oregon State Senate from 2001 to 2009. She announced her resignation from the Senate effective August 31, 2009, and took a post as Deputy Director for Human Services Programs at the Oregon Department of Human Services. In 2015, she was reportedly considering a return to the senate.
She was raised there in a family of nine children by her father, a Baptist minister, and her mother, a cook at the school cafeteria.
She arrived via train on December 1, 1967, and began working odd jobs. In Oregon, she re-married, adding four stepchildren, but divorced after a few years to Elvis.
In 1970, she enrolled at Portland State University where she then graduated from in 1972 with a bachelor of arts degree in education. Carter then earned a masters of education in psychology from Oregon State University in 1973.
In 1973, Carter began working for Portland Community College as a counselor
Republican leaders recruited Carter to run for a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives in 1983. They hoped to unseat the incumbent in a heavily Democratic district in Northeast Portland. She became the first African-American woman elected to the Oregon Legislative Assembly.
In the House she worked to pass legislation that ended state controlled investments in South Africa during apartheid and legislation to observe Martin Luther King, Junior."s birthday as a state holiday.
In 1998, she was a candidate for the office of Oregon Superintendent of Public Instruction, but lost to Stan Bunn. In November 1999, she became the president of the Urban League of Portland, serving until May 2002.
Also in 1999 she retired from Portland Community College. She was then elected to the Senate in November 2000.
In 2005, she became president pro tempore of the Oregon State Senate and was unopposed in the 2008 election.
She resigned from the Oregon Senate in 2009 in order to take a job at the Oregon Department of Human Services. The hiring was criticized since the new position paid $121,872 annually, which, along with other similar moves to the public sector by other legislators, led to the introduction of several bills to curtail such practices. None of the bills ever became law.
Carter became director of community engagement in 2012 and saw her salary decreased.
She served as President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Vice Chair for Ways and Means, and as a member of both the Health and Human Services and Oregon State Hospital Patient Care committees. Carter was a member of the Oregon House until January 1999, when term limits prevented her from seeking additional terms.