By Cash Michaels
Special to the NNPA from The Carolinian Newspaper
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – On August 8, more than 3,000 family, friends, colleagues and admirers gathered at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte to honor, and say goodbye to a man all agree helped to change the course of history in the South, and certainly North Carolina.
Attorney Julius L. Chambers, who died August 2 of an undisclosed illness at the age of 76, was eulogized as a quiet, yet courageous fighter for civil and human rights. In the 1970s, he led the legal battles in North Carolina to desegregate the public schools, winning all eight U.S. Supreme Court cases, most notably the 1971 Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision that brought about busing for racial balance.
“Our community and our nation have benefited tremendously from Mr. Chambers’ tireless efforts to ensure that all people are treated equally,” said attorney James Ferguson of the Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, P.A. the Charlotte law firm that Chambers co-founded in 1964. “He believed that regardless of one’s position, status, race, creed, color, religion or gender, everyone has an obligation to ensure equality for all.”
Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the Moral Monday movement, said of his late friend upon news of his passing, “We pick up Brother Chambers’ strong spirit to speak soft but direct truths to the same regressive policies and their authors who are determined to take us back to the ugly past of segregation, deprivation and division of the 1950’s. Our leader, friend, brother and mentor, Julius Chambers, fought his whole life against these ugly policies.”
According to a press release from his alma mater, North Carolina Central University, where Chambers served as chancellor from 1993 – 2001, Julius LeVonne Chambers was born in Mount Gilead, N.C., a small town about 100 miles southwest of Durham, on Oct. 6, 1936. Chambers often told the story about the day in 1949 his father, William Chambers, told him that the $2,000 he’d saved to send him to school at Laurinburg Institute, was gone, thanks to a White customer whose 18-wheeler the elder Chambers had maintained and repaired for months. The man had refused to pay the bill and jeered as he drove off with the rig. William Chambers sought help from the few White lawyers in town, but they turned him down.”
That was the day, Chambers said, that he decided study law.
Instead of Laurinburg Institute, he attended the all-Black public high school in Troy, excelling in sports and academics. He then enrolled at North Carolina College at Durham, now North Carolina Central, where he was a standout student and leader. He was president of the student body and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, and he graduated summa cum laude in 1958 with a degree in history. He attended University of Michigan on a fellowship and earned a master’s degree in history, then entered the University of North Carolina Law School in Chapel Hill, where, in 1962, he graduated first in his class of 100 and was the first African-American chosen editor of the North Carolina Law Review.
After graduation, Chambers, by then married to Vivian Giles of Kannapolis, N.C., was appointed as a teaching associate at Columbia University School of Law, where he also received a Master of Laws degree in 1963.
In 1964, he opened a law practice in Charlotte. In his first year, he took on 35 school desegregation cases and 20 suits charging discrimination in public accommodations. By 1972, the firm had 11 members, including five Whites. It was North Carolina’s first integrated law firm.
By 1965, integration was proceeding slowly in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Although it had been 11 years since the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, only a few schools were integrated. Chambers sued the school board to force total desegregation. Days after he filed the suit, his car was bombed during a speaking engagement in New Bern.
The Charlotte case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, wound its way through the courts, culminating in the 1971 ruling that ordered cross-town busing to end segregation of local schools. It also highlighted the power of federal courts to intervene when public school systems dawdled on their way to integration.
It was one of many legal triumphs for Chambers. Others included two key employment discrimination decisions, also decided in his clients’ favor by the Supreme Court, Griggs v. Duke Power Co. and Moody v. Albemarle Paper Co.
In 1984, Chambers left the law firm to become the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a position previously held by Thurgood Marshall. Under his leadership, the fund became the first line of defense against the political assault on civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs that arose during the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1992, UNC President Spangler, a Charlotte businessman who had been a member of the school board in Charlotte when Chambers sued in 1965, recruited Chambers to be chancellor at North Carolina Central University in Durham.
During his eight years at the university, he oversaw a doubling of NCCU’s research funding and increased the number of endowed chairs from one to 14, including the $1 million Charles Hamilton Houston chair in the School of Law. He also persuaded the state legislature to fund a new building for the School of Education.
He played a vital role in establishing NCCU as a center for biomedical research.
Congressman Mel Watt [D-N.C] of Charlotte was heartbroken at news that his one-time senior law partner had died.
“The history of our state will record that Julius Chambers did more to advance us toward the constitutional aspiration of ‘justice and equality for all’ than anyone else in North Carolina,” he said in a statement.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said, “This country have lost one of our great civil rights lawyers and leaders.”
Attorney Irving Joyner, law professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham, recalled, “Julius Chambers was a scholar, a visionary, an eloquent and passionate advocate, an organizer, a legal warrior and a caring and thoughtful human-being. During the more than 40 years that I worked with Attorney Chambers, he was always prepared for the audience which he had to face. He knew people and how to motivate and inspire them. He used the many strategies which he learned fighting against racism and segregation to create a changed civil rights landscape. He strongly believed in the merits of an integrated society and fought to bring about that result.”
Benjamin Chavis, leader of the Wilmington Ten – an historic criminal justice case that the Chambers law firm fought for more than 40 years – fondly remembers attorney Chambers for his spirit of justice.
“Julius Chambers was a freedom-fighting lawyer who struggled and sacrificed victoriously for the civil rights of Black Americans and for the rights of all people who cried out for freedom, justice and equality,” Chavis said. “The legal genius of Julius Chambers changed North Carolina, America and the world. God bless the living legacy of Julius Chambers.”
Attorney Julius Chambers is survived by a daughter, Judy, and a son, Derrick, and three grandchildren. His wife, Vivian, died in 2012, as did his mother, Matilda, at the age of 101.
In lieu of flowers, the Chambers family has requested that contributions be made to NCCU (Julius L. Chambers Endowed Scholarship), as well as two other organizations that were dear to Chancellor Emeritus Chambers. Gifts may be made online at: www.nccu.edu/donation/. Please indicate “Julius L. Chambers Endowed Scholarship” in the Designation Instructions. Contributions may also be mailed to the NCCU Foundation, P.O. Box 19363, Durham, NC 27707.