CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Julius Chambers, a tenacious and unflappable civil rights lawyer whose cases led the way for public school integration in the North Carolina Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, died Friday night, his law firm said today.
Chambers, 76, had been in bad health for several months.
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, N.C. 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 University of North Carolina 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 6-year-old James Swann, son of a Johnson C. Smith professor, mandated cross-town busing. The hotly resisted mandate did more than end segregation in Charlotte. 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.
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 to 2001). After a master’s degree 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 teaching associate at Columbia University School of Law, where he also received a Master of Law degree 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 in Charlotte, 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 percent of its 1,200 cases involved civil rights.
“Chambers had cases hanging from the rafters,” said Daly.
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.”
Though his words were few, Chambers’ lessons endured.
Soon after Mel Watt arrived, Chambers sent him down to Lumberton, N.C., 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.”
When Chambers left Charlotte in 1984 to become director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, former Charlotte 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.