In 1948, William Chambers, a black maintenance worker in Montgomery County, NC was denied payment for a job by a white customer. William Chambers spent many afternoons searching for an attorney to represent him, but all the white lawyers he asked refused. William told this story to his son, Julius Chambers, who then vowed to become a lawyer and fight for justice.
Julius Chambers dedicated his life to ending employment discrimination, school segregation, gerrymandering and other practices that were used to disenfranchise racial minorities. He died on August 2nd, leaving behind a legacy as a freedom fighter in the courts as well as the classroom. On The State of Things today, colleagues and friends shared stories about Chambers and reflected on his work.
Adam Stein, an attorney at Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, was a mentee of Julius Chambers. They eventually joined together to create the first integrated law firm in the state: Ferguson, Stein and Chambers. Stein recalled how even in his twenties, Julius Chambers was legendary in North Carolina’s black communities.
“As soon as Chambers was in North Carolina he was making his way around the state, [to] common folks in every town and city,” Stein told Host Frank Stasio. “He would meet with whoever the African American leaders were, the funeral directors, the dentists, the doctors the school teachers and principals…he was almost like a politician. Very quickly he was known, respected and admired.”
Anita Earls, civil rights attorney and executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, shed light on the many cases where Chambers fought for racial justice. Host Frank Stasio asked Earls about Griggs v. Duke Power, a landmark case in battling employment discrimination.
“What was so impactful [because] it established that in employment discrimination you can prove that discrimination happens if you have a neutral policy that has a disparate impact on a class of employees, African-Americans or women,” Earls said. “[This] was really crucial to obtaining relief for whole classes of people who wanted jobs.”
Throughout his life, Julius Chambers fought for justice, not only in the courtroom, but in the classroom. Bernice Johnson, Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, worked alongside Chambers during his time as Chancellor at his alma mater, North Carolina Central University. Johnson told Stasio about the first time Julius Chambers toured the residence halls at NCCU, which had long been neglected.
“We went for a tour of residence halls, and we were in McLean Hall…and he looked at us and asked ‘Is this what our students have to contend with? Is this where our students really have to live?’… As we told him yes, he teared up…”
Chambers’ spent much of his tenure at NCCU fighting for equal resources and better environments on campus- a struggle not dissimilar from his courtroom battles.
Throughout the conversation, Earls, Johnson, and Stein agreed that while the struggle for equal rights continues against significant barriers, Chambers left many others to follow in his footsteps. His legacy is not just one of policies, but of touching people’s lives.
“I will most remember how he cared about ordinary people…and he cared about their life experience,” Anita Earls said. “He cared about them having an equal opportunity and justice…And that’s what guides and sustains me.”