Another giant in the Civil Rights movement has died. Julius Chambers was 76.
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.
…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….
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.
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 the third LDF director, following Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg.
In June 1964, Chambers began a solo law practice in Charlotte, North Carolina – a firm which eventually became the first integrated firm in North Carolina history. With fellow founding partners James E. Ferguson II and Adam Stein, along with lawyers from LDF, the firm successfully litigated a number of key cases before the Supreme Court of the United States that would help to shape evolving American civil rights laws, including: the school busing decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971); and two important Title VII employment discrimination cases Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) and Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody (1975).
The firm’s efforts were met several times with violence from white supremacists. While Chambers was at a speaking engagement in January 1965 in New Bern, North Carolina his car was destroyed by a bomb. On November 22, 1965, in the midst of the first hearings of the Swann school busing case, Chambers’s home was bombed along with three other homes of African American leaders: then North Carolina NAACP President Kelly Alexander, his brother Frederick Alexander (a Charlotte city councilman) and community activist Reginald Hawkins. Amazingly, no one was injured in these bombings. The bombings received a great deal of national television and newspaper coverage, including an article in the New York Times. In February 1971, Chambers’s downtown Charlotte law office was also firebombed.
Chambers reentered private law practice with this firm (now Ferguson Stein Chambers Adkins Gresham & Sumter PA) after he retired from his position as chancellor of North Carolina Central University on June 30, 2001.