Gordon Carey was born in Michigan in 1932. His father, a pacifist Methodist minister, founded and chaired a Michigan chapter of CORE in 1943. In the early 1950s, Carey moved to Pasadena, California, where he served as chair of his local CORE chapter. In 1954, he was elected vice chairman of National CORE, and in 1958, he was hired as a field secretary for the organization. He was promoted to field director in 1960, and in this capacity oversaw CORE programs, training, and field secretaries.
Following the February 1, 1960 sit-in at the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., Carey was sent to Greensboro, stopping in Durham to assist in planning demonstrations there. In 1961, he helped to organize the Freedom Rides, and he also participated in planning the Freedom Highways Project, the March on Washington, and 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project. He left CORE in 1964 and in 1968 joined Floyd McKissick's efforts to build Soul City, an experimental, interracial community in North Carolina—constructed by an African-American company, McKissick Enterprises.