CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Julius Chambers’ law partners remembered their friend and colleague Saturday, a day after the pioneering civil rights lawyer died following a long illness.
“Our hearts are heavy because of this loss,” said James E. Ferguson II, who had worked with Chambers for nearly 50 years. Ferguson recalled meeting Chambers as a young lawyer in the 1960’s, and being invited to join his civil rights firm in Charlotte.
“Our community and our nation have benefited greatly from his tireless efforts to ensure all people are treated equally,” said Ferguson.
Chambers will remembered for treating every case with passion, said Ferguson.
He is best known, however, for cases involving school desegregation and equal educational opportunities for students of all races.
In 1965, Chambers brought a lawsuit against Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on behalf of a six-year-old student named James Swann. He lost the original case, but filed the lawsuit again and it was heard by a different judge.
Chambers fought Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and in 1971, he won. The order to desegregate CMS through busing served as a model for the nation.
“The Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg case was a life-changing case for the nation,” said Ferguson. “Chambers was able to get the courts to use the same mechanisms that segregated our community to desegregate our community.”
The fight was not without its dangers. During the court battle, Chambers’ home, office, and car were all bombed, and he received death threats.
“He was a man of great courage. He put his life on the line for the causes he believed in,” said Ferguson. “None of those slowed him down or deterred him.”
Chambers also received great acclaim. He was the first black editor-in-chief of the North Carolina Law Review of UNC Chapel Hill, the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and later Chancellor of his alma mater, NC Central University.
Yet according to law partner Geraldine Sumter, he always looked for the next challenge.
“It wasn't enough to identify a problem for Chambers,” she said, “he wanted to know what the solution was, what the attack was.”
In 2007, his hometown of Mt. Gilead, in Montgomery County, named a street in his honor. Chambers was honored by dozens who gathered to unveil the new street sign – a marker to where the last 50 years have brought us, and what has been learned, with his help.
"People have changed,” he said at the time, “and that we all grow up and that we can learn to love and respect each other and appreciate that all can make some contributions."
It was a monument to the soft-spoken lawyer who gave the voiceless a voice.
"I know he never lost his commitment to help folks that needed help,” said Ferguson, “and I'm not going to lose mine."