CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers – a towering crusader for equality whose landmark cases led to integrating Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools – died late Friday after months of declining health.
Chambers, 76, a soft-spoken but tenacious and unflappable attorney and former chancellor at N.C. Central University in Durham, fought for equal rights for everyone to the end, said his law partners, James Ferguson and Geraldine Sumter, at a news conference Saturday.
“Our community and our nation has benefited tremendously from Mr. Chambers’ tireless efforts to ensure that all people are treated equally,” Ferguson told reporters outside the Charlotte firm that Chambers founded more than 50 years ago.
“ … He believed that regardless of one’s position, status, race, creed, color, religion or gender, everyone has an obligation to ensure equality for all.”
Over the years, his opponents set his law office on fire, bombed his house, torched his car and burned his father’s shop in Mount Gilead. Yet Chambers was never vindictive, and he never quit.
“The animosity toward him and his positions was just heavy and real. You could feel it,” said C.D. Spangler, former UNC president, who came on the school board in 1972 after Chambers had sued that board and won. “But he never let that change him personally. And it didn’t change (Chambers’ wife) Vivian. He didn’t hate the people who hated him.”
Chambers once said: “We must accept this type of practice from those less in control of their faculties.”
The 1971 ruling in the Swann vs. the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education case, named for six-year-old James Swann, son of a Johnson C. Smith professor, mandated crosstown busing. The hotly resisted mandate did more than end segregation here. It highlighted the power of federal courts to intervene when local public school systems dawdled on their way to full integration.
Chambers took eight cases to the Supreme Court – including the Swann case – and won every one.
“He was my personal hero,” said U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, who returned to Charlotte in 1972 to practice law with Chambers.
Setting a course
Julius LeVonne Chambers was born in Mount Gilead on Oct. 6, 1936. His father, William Chambers – “Shine” to customers whose Model T Fords he had washed – owned a garage-general store out from Mount Gilead, about 15 miles southeast of Albemarle. His mother, Mathilda Braton Chambers, helped out in the store and raised their four children, of whom Julius was third.
In 1949, 13-year-old Julius was looking forward to following his two older siblings 100 miles east to the private Laurinburg Institute. But one April day, fighting back tears, Chambers told his son that the $2,000 he’d saved to send him off to school was gone, thanks to a white customer whose 18-wheeler Chambers had maintained and repaired for months, buying parts out of his own pocket.
That morning, the man had refused to pay the bill and jeered as he drove off with the rig. William Chambers spent the afternoon going door to door, asking for help from the few white lawyers in town, each of whom turned him away.
That was the day Julius Chambers vowed to study law.
Julius attended the all-black public high school in Troy, traveling 12 miles each way in a cast-off bus from the white school. To enhance the primitive curriculum – students had to kill and cut up hogs on the principal’s farm – he subscribed to the Book of the Month Club.
“It must have been like pouring water on a sponge,” said George Daly, who practiced briefly in Chambers’ firm.
Young Chambers did more than keep his promise. He graduated summa cum laude from North Carolina College in Durham, now North Carolina Central University (where he would later serve as chancellor from 1993-2001). After a master’s in history from the University of Michigan, he entered the UNC Law School, where, in 1962, he graduated first in his class of 100 and was the first black chosen editor of the North Carolina Law Review.
After graduation, Chambers, married to Kannapolis native Vivian Giles, was appointed as a teaching associate at Columbia University School of Law, where he also received a Master of Law in 1963. That same year, he began his internship with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York. In 1964, he set up practice at 405-1/2 East Trade, and in his first year took on 35 school desegregation cases and 20 suits charging discrimination in public accommodations. By 1972, the firm had mushroomed to 11 members, including five whites. Forty per cent of its 1,200 cases involved civil rights.
“Chambers had cases hanging from the rafters,” said Daly.
Working a witness
In or out of the courtroom, Chambers’ reserve, his physical compactness, enhanced by neatly-cut suits and close-cropped hair, prompted the label “unflappable.”
“I am convinced that he could preside over a meeting and write two briefs, all at the same time,” said Daly.
John Gresham, a former partner in Chambers’ firm, said Chambers had a habit of playing with string or a rubber band, often making a cat’s cradle, while interrogating a witness, thereby lulling that witness into a false sense of security.
Another tactic, according to Gresham, was to start out asking innocuous questions that appeared to be aimed at finding out very simple things about the company’s policies.
“You could see the witness relaxing and thinking, ‘This guy doesn’t even know how we operate.’ Then Chambers would very carefully draw a circle around what he wanted to know, and as soon as he had the loop closed, he would bore in, and you could see the witness thinking, ‘Oh, my God!’”
Said law partner James Ferguson II: “A lot of people were surprised to see Chambers in court. They knew he was a brilliant lawyer and a great advocate, and all that’s true. But some people expected him to be bombastic and always on the attack. Chambers never raised his voice. He was always very low key and very calm, and because of this approach, he disarmed the witness.”
Plowing through obstacles
Chambers knew how to steer clear of distractions, said Adam Stein of Chapel Hill, the first white lawyer Chambers hired.
“The thing for Julius was to focus on the case and present the case professionally, to be prepared, and to avoid getting into personal disputes with the opposing lawyer,” Stein said. “I think often the other side was hoping he could be baited into being distracted. You lose when you do that.”
That ability was an asset that had served him well during law school.
“Julius was first in his class and editor of the Law Review. But when the law school had the end-of-the-year banquet at the Chapel Hill Country Club, which didn’t allow blacks, he was invited not to go,” Stein said. “All sorts of things in society could have created anger and distraction. But he just plowed right through.”
Plowing through was how Chambers managed some of his biggest cases.
In 1965, the year after he opened his office, Chambers filed a restraining order in a case that led to the integration of the Shrine Bowl, an annual charity football game between the best high school players from North Carolina and South Carolina.
Another landmark case that Chambers won in the Supreme Court overturned dual seniority systems for white and black employees. Still another Supreme Court win eliminated employment qualifications that went beyond the demands of the job, a case that proved as beneficial to women as to blacks.
In a 1965 interview about civil rights, Chambers said: “I just think more can be accomplished by less emotion in dealing with the problem.”
Daly said Chambers didn’t get flustered, and he didn’t discourse.
“He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t chat about what he was thinking. If you asked him a question, he’d answer with very few words,” Daly said. “But he was just a superior writer of legal prose, which is its own form of communication.”
Lesson in justice
Though his words were few, Chambers’ lessons endured.
Soon after Mel Watt arrived, Chambers sent him down to Lumberton to defend protestors charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.
“I get down there,” Watt said, “and I find that these are Native Americans who’d been carrying tomahawks and demonstrating because they didn’t want to go to school with black kids.”
Back in Charlotte, a confused Watt asked Chambers: “Why in the world did you send me to Lumberton to defend people who were against going to school with black kids?”
“Julius never looked up,” Watt recalled. He said, ‘Don’t you believe in the First Amendment? Don’t you believe in free speech?’”
Watt said he’d studied constitutional law at Yale under Robert Bork, who would go on to become U.S. Solicitor General in the Nixon administration.
“I thought I knew everything there was to know about constitutional law,” Watt said. “But that was the first time it registered that free speech included protecting people whose free speech you didn’t agree with.”
Returning to roots
When Chambers left Charlotte in 1984 to become director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, former Observer editorial columnist Jack Claiborne wrote that “losing a Julius Chambers ...is like losing a magnet, a force that helps energize the community.”
He was the third LDF director, following Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg.
Chambers returned to North Carolina in 1993, first to the college where he earned his undergraduate degree, then to the law firm he started.
Spangler, then president of the University of North Carolina system, flew to New York on a cold, rainy day in 1993 to recruit Chambers as the chancellor of N.C. Central. When Chambers arrived, the school was recovering from charges of financial mismanagement. During his tenure, the school doubled its research funds, increased the number of endowed chairs from one to 14, and boosted scholarship money.
“There is a soft-spoken tenacity about Julius Chambers,” Molly Broad, who followed Spangler as UNC systems president, said when Chambers left in 2001. “I can imagine how he used that effectively in the courtroom, and I’ve watched him use it as chancellor of N.C. Central in a way that has raised the visibility and stature of the campus.”
Then, in 2001, Chambers returned to Charlotte and the law firm he founded - then called Ferguson, Stein, Wallas, Adkins, Gresham & Sumter - and for the second time became embroiled in the desegregation debate after a group of white parents again sued the school system, challenging busing and other race-based policies.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, but I had hoped we would be much further on by now,” Chambers told the Observer in June of 2001. “We must continue to bring people together and break down the barrier of segregation. In Charlotte, busing is still the only way to do that.”