Charlotte commemorated a civil rights heavy-weight Thursday. Julius Chambers fought for equality through the courts and argued some of the cases that helped integrate Charlotte’s schools and businesses.
He had a lot of hatred directed at him as an African-American challenging prejudice, but he never let that make him bitter. Instead, Chambers set up North Carolina’s first law firm to employ both black and white lawyers, partly to serve as an example of the integration he fought for. He died last week.
Chamber’s softly-spoken sentences had a way of making you lean in to listen. The substance of them won U.S. Supreme Court cases. Eight of them.
"Using our system of governance, our judicial system, offers the best hope for permanent resolution of our struggle," Chambers said during a 2002 talk with Duke law students.
Chambers pushed for equality with determination and perseverance. He saw the legal system as a way to make big strides in breaking down inequities in the workplace and in schools; aspects of life he was well-acquainted with growing up in Montgomery County.
The plan was to send him to private school in Laurinburg like his other siblings, but his father lost that money through no fault of his own.
"My father had worked on this gentleman’s tractor-trailer. My father was a mechanic, and the gentleman would not pay him and no lawyer in North Carolina would represent my father in suing this leading white citizen of my community," Chambers said.
That set his career path. He attended UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school and was the school’s first black editor-in-chief of the Law Review. Much of his career was spent in Charlotte, where he set up the state’s first integrated law firm. He also spent nine years as the director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. That’s the nation’s leading civil rights law firm founded by Thurgood Marshall. After that, he became chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University.
All of this was remembered at his funeral. A couple thousand people came to commemorate Chambers at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.
"Julius hired me as a young legal defense fund lawyer in the summer of 1988," said Sherillyn Ifill, who is now head of the Legal Defense Fund.
Ifill remembers as a young lawyer telling Chambers about some case theory she wanted to advance and he’d simply ask, "What about your clients?"
"This insistent focus on clients, which I pass along to our Legal Defense Fund lawyers today, revealed Julius’s deep, deep respect for the common man, for ordinary people who entrusted their livelihood, their liberty, their franchise to us," Ifill said.
"And this humility to me is the measure of Julius’s greatness."
Chambers took many small cases for people who just had a hard time finding a lawyer to represent them. And then there were the cases that would challenge and change society, like Swann vs. the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor in 1971 and mandated crosstown bussing to help integrate schools.
"That case meant for me that I would not go to a school with hand me down books or with handed down uniforms, that I would have an opportunity to experience the kind of freedom Julius Chambers saw for young black children," said Anthony Foxx, U.S. Transportation Secretary and former Charlotte mayor.
Chamber’s law partner James Ferguson remembers the day the case was argued before the high court.
"He was his usual soft-spoken self; soft-spoken, but confident. There was never any lack of confidence on Chambers part on any position he took on anything," Ferguson said.
Across the courtroom, Ben Horack represented the CMS school board. He was a former CMS school board member who voted to end segregation in 1957 despite the threats on his life, but he couldn’t justify bussing students across town. He thought Chambers was misusing the Constitution.
"He had a social view of the constitution that needed liberality to construe it," said Horack.
But he still holds Chambers in high esteem.
"He was a damned good lawyer. And very persuasive and did a good job with almost anything he undertook," Horack said.
Chambers did have plenty of enemies. His office was set on fire and his home and car were bombed.
"I’ve seen him upset at things that were not right, at injustice, but it was never a personal kind of thing," said Ferguson, Chambers' law partner.
"He didn’t have the focus or the time to hate. I think he was too busy trying to make things better for people who needed his help."
A lawyer to the end, Julius Chambers died last week at the age of 76.