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Legendary civil rights leader Julius Chambers dies

He "represented the right side"



Julius Chambers, the legendary civil rights lawyer who died here Friday, Aug. 2, at 76, was guided by two beliefs. He believed in the law as a potent weapon in the fight for racial justice. And he believed the battle was never over.

For those who expect renowned trial lawyers to be masters of bluster and bombast, Chambers was a surprise. He was a compact, rather formal man, and in the 40 years I knew him his demeanor was as constant as the North Star: quiet and humble, dispassionate and disciplined, incisive and keenly intelligent.

He was born in the small town of Mount Gilead, about 60 miles east of Charlotte, in 1936, when racist laws tyrannized black Southerners. Schools were segregated. Blacks were discriminated against in employment and all but barred from politics. (In North Carolina in 1940, only 5 percent of voting-age blacks were registered. Others were shut out by social pressure and literacy tests unfairly administered by white officials.)

North Carolina has made great progress in racial justice since then, and no one did more than Chambers to make it happen.

The tale of how he became a lawyer sounds like one of those myths that arise to explain how heroes are made.

His father, William Chambers, owned a garage and general store near Mount Gilead. He intended to send young Julius to the Laurinburg Institute, a private prep school for blacks.

But one day in 1949, his father, nearly in tears, told the 13-year-old Julius that the $2,000 he'd saved for his schooling was gone. A white customer, whose 18-wheeler Chambers had serviced for months, drove off in his rig and refused to pay his bill, which included parts Chambers had paid for. His father sought a lawyer's help, but the town's few lawyers — all whites — refused to represent him. That day, young Julius decided he'd become a lawyer.

He went to a segregated public school, then embarked on a stellar academic career. At North Carolina College for Negroes (now N.C. Central University) in Durham, he graduated summa cum laude and was student body president. He earned a master's in history from the University of Michigan, and in 1959 enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law school, which only recently had desegregated. In 1962 he graduated first in his class of 100 and was the first black editor of the North Carolina Law Review. He went to Columbia University law school as a teaching associate and earned a master of laws, then returned to Charlotte to start the state's first integrated law firm.

Soon the firm was winning civil rights lawsuits across the state. Chambers took on Duke Power over hiring practices and won a U.S. Supreme Court decision forbidding employers to use an employment test that disqualifies blacks at a significantly higher rate than whites when the test isn't related to job performance. He challenged Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to integrate more rapidly, winning a unanimous Supreme Court ruling allowing cross-town busing to do so. He successfully sued to integrate the Shrine Bowl, a football game between high school all-stars from the two Carolinas.

His work made him the target of racist anger. Over the years, his car was dynamited, his Charlotte home was firebombed as he and his family slept, his father's Mount Gilead garage was set ablaze and his Charlotte law office was destroyed by fire. But he never wavered and never expressed hatred toward those who hated him.

In 1984, he left Charlotte for New York to head the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the nation's leading center for civil rights litigation. In 1993, University of North Carolina President C.D. "Dick" Spangler lured Chambers home to become chancellor of his alma mater, N.C. Central University.

Chambers revitalized N.C. Central. He provided strong leadership, greatly increased the school's endowment and created several endowed chairs to attract top professors. When he left the job in 2001, Spangler called him "a perfect chancellor."

In 2000, when I was editor of The Charlotte Observer's editorial pages, I chose him as one of a dozen Charlotte citizens who had contributed the most to the city's progress in the 20th century.

I last saw him a few months ago in one of my favorite lunch spots, the United House of Prayer for All People cafeteria across Morehead Street from Bank of America Stadium.

I stopped by his table to chat. He seemed tired. We spoke about family and friends, and about efforts in Raleigh to roll back some advances in voting rights and social justice. "It never ends, does it?" I said. "No," he said, "it never ends."

Chambers argued eight cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won them all. When a Charlotte Observer reporter asked how he'd done it, he replied, "I represented the right side."

He did indeed.

Ed Williams retired in 2008 after 25 years as editor of the Charlotte Observer's editorial pages.

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