Julius Chambers is a busy man. He doesn’t have time to look back, but to humor a writer who is visiting his Charlotte law office, he stops — albeit briefly — and reflects on his career as one of the pre-eminent figures in the civil rights movement.
He sits behind a desk in a sparsely decorated conference room and speaks in a soft and unassuming tone about some of his landmark legal victories. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in 1971. Griggs v. Duke Power Co. in 1971. Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody in 1975. These were cases that helped quash overt forms of racism — not only in North Carolina, but nationally — strengthening laws against school segregation and employment discrimination.
“You recognized that many of the cases you were litigating were landmark and that you were really causing people to change their way of life,” he says, looking right through the writer as if he’s trying to focus on some faraway place. “I knew about the opposition in a number of states to efforts to integrate. I knew governors in Mississippi and Alabama and Arkansas, etc., had raised a lot of concern. I knew that whites, generally, were opposed to a lot of things we were trying to do. But I also knew that blacks were insisting on some opportunities themselves that they could not otherwise attain.”
There isn’t the slightest hint of bitterness in his voice as he recounts the price he paid. The time his law office was burned down? Or his car was firebombed? Or dynamite was thrown through one of the windows of his home? He addresses those incidents with intellectual detachment.
“You realized there would be some hostility,” he says. “You did the best you could to be prepared for it. You knew all along that there was opposition, and you just tried to keep going.”
He glances at his watch, leans forward in his chair and then excuses himself to go make a phone call. When he returns to the conference room several minutes later, he is carrying a stack of papers, which he plops onto the desk. With one eye on the writer and the other on his mountain of work, he continues the interview. Time is of the essence. Julius Chambers is 69 years old, and he still has a lot to do.
“You know about all the times Julius has been bombed and burned,” says George Daly, a semi-retired civil rights lawyer in Charlotte who has known Chambers since the late 1960s. “I mean, he’s got more grievances than most people, but he pays less attention to them than almost anybody. His parents must have been astonishing people.”
Astonishing for this reason: They had the audacity to believe that they, too, had a stake in the American Dream, even though they lived in a place and a time, racially segregated Mount Gilead, N.C., of the 1930s and ’40s, when society told them they didn’t. Chambers’ father, William, was an auto mechanic who didn’t make it past the third grade. He wanted something better for his four kids, and he knew education would be their means. William parlayed his limited resources into his own service station, saving all the money he could in order to send his children to private high schools that provided more opportunities for blacks than Montgomery County’s “separate but equal” offerings.
The American Dream was in motion, but when Julius’ turn arrived to go to boarding school, it screeched to a halt. “My father had worked on a truck for a white person in Mount Gilead and had about $2,000 worth of bills coming,” Chambers says. “The guy wouldn’t pay. My father went all over trying to find someone to sue this guy to collect his debt. Nobody would represent a black guy suing a white guy. My father came home and met with us to tell us he wasn’t going to be able to send me to boarding school. That was a sad occasion.”
Right then, Chambers realized what he was put on this earth to do: “I had to be a lawyer. And I had to help, particularly, black people who had the kinds of problems that my father experienced.”
Upon finishing at Montgomery County’s segregated public high school in 1954, Chambers attended North Carolina Central University, where he graduated summa cum laude and was president of the student body; then he attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a master’s degree in history; then he attended law school at the University of North Carolina, where he became the first African-American editor in chief of the school’s law review and graduated first in his class of 100 students; and then he attended Columbia University Law School, where he received his LL.M. In 10 whirlwind years, Chambers rose above the institutional racism of his youth and became a learned man.
“You have to understand that he came from one of the poorest educational backgrounds you can come from,” says Rich Rosen, a law professor at the University of North Carolina who is writing a book about the impact Chambers and his law firm had on civil rights. “Many of the other African Americans who went to college and law school came from bigger-city schools or from private schools. He came from a rural, underfunded school district. Every step of the way, he plowed through and ended up at the top of his class.”
Then he put all that knowledge to good use. Chambers started humbly in 1964, opening a one-person law practice located in a coldwater walkup on predominantly white East Trade Street in Charlotte. “It was an old building,” Chambers remembers. “We had to buy electric heaters.” Eventually, James E. Ferguson and Adam Stein signed on, and it became the first integrated law firm in North Carolina.
During the ensuing years, the firm scored numerous wins at the state level and in the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, no firm in the country influenced more legislation relating to desegregation and employment and voting rights than Chambers’. He wasn’t getting rich practicing civil rights law, but becoming rich had never been his goal.
“They provided a new model of lawyering in terms of absolute dedication to the poorest clients, to the people who never really had anyone fighting for them,” Rosen says. “All of a sudden, these folks who had trouble getting any lawyer to represent them had the best lawyers in the state representing them.”
The firm’s moxie was on full display in its most famous case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which led to federally mandated busing and helped integrate schools around the country. Daly watched Chambers argue the case in a Charlotte courtroom, and he still marvels at what he saw.
“In the late ’60s in Charlotte, which qualified as the Deep South at that point, you had a black man in a business suit cross-examining the head of the school board — and doing a real good job of it — and convincing the judge, who started out against him and ended up on his side,” says Daly. “It was a full courtroom a lot of days. It was absolutely electric.”
A bit too electric for some people’s liking. Outside the courtroom, more violence than ever swirled around Chambers. “I guess the most frightening thing one encountered was when some people were shipping explosives through the mail,” he says. “You’d get your envelope, and you might not be here anymore. That was a real threat because you didn’t know what to look for.”
Chambers never intended to be a polarizing figure. “I just would like to see a society where people — whatever their race or color or gender or nationality — will be treated fairly and will be allowed to progress based on their ability,” he says.
Without the help of the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), Chambers may never have fully actualized his views on civil rights. The LDF was formed in 1940 by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to offer legal assistance to poor African Americans, and Chambers interned for the organization in 1963. From Marshall to Jack Greenberg, the then-director counsel of the LDF, to an array of lawyers and educators, Chambers was able to learn from the brightest minds in the civil rights movement.
Chambers’ connection with the LDF endured long after his internship ended. The organization provided seed money for his fledgling practice and then lent its considerable brainpower as the firm grew and began trying its landmark cases. “Before we would argue before the Supreme Court,” says Chambers, “we would have dry runs, and we had professors and lawyers sitting around tables watching.”
In 1984, Chambers left his practice in Charlotte to become — after Marshall and Greenberg — the third director-counsel in the history of the LDF. It was an honor, yes, but more important, there was work that needed to be done. Chambers’ main initiative was the formation of the Poverty & Justice Project, which examined the economic dimensions of racial discrimination. Jack Boger was the point man for the program and was afforded an up-close look at the machinations of Chambers.
“Talking to Julius about something you were planning to do was like appearing before a very good judge,” says Boger, now a law professor at the University of North Carolina. “You were going to get tough questions, and he wasn’t necessarily going to reveal his hand right away. He wanted to be sure that you understood, and that he understood, what the legal theory and factual support was for what we did. He was just a tireless worker. He doesn’t know how to get out of fifth gear.”
Chambers left the LDF in 1993, but it was no time for a breather. He returned to his educational roots and took over as chancellor of North Carolina Central University. “One of the things that’s disappointing and frightening is that young people coming along today make a lot of assumptions that things are as they are and will remain the way they are,” Chambers says. “Going to N.C. Central gave me a chance to work with some students.”
Chambers was 65 — retirement age — when he left the school in 2001, but much to the chagrin of his wife, Vivian, he remained stuck in fifth gear. There still was work to do, so he went back into private practice in Charlotte with Ferguson Stein Chambers Wallas Adkins Gresham & Sumter and also agreed to be the director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights.
“I think we’ve made some progress, but I also recognize that we haven’t gotten completely away from where we were,” he says. “One of the major efforts we tried [at the LDF] was to get the court to hold that it would violate equal protection to discriminate against people because they were poor. We never got the court to go that far. It’s a major area we still have to address.”
How devoted is Chambers to the cause?
“Lots of big, powerful people have their dark sides,” Daly says. “You know, Lyndon Johnson had his mistress in the capitol for many, many years. Chambers’ wife was going through his suits one time to send them to the dry cleaners. She found the incriminating evidence: a plane ticket to Boston. It was not a shirt with lipstick — it was a plane ticket to Boston. Chambers used to teach at Columbia and Harvard and various other places. Of course, that was disruptive to his family life — he was gone a lot. He had promised his wife he wouldn’t teach again, so he was sneaking up to Boston to teach at Harvard.”
We should all have such skeletons in our closet.
The interview is over, which is a source of relief to Chambers. His 14-hour workday — typical by his standards — rapidly is turning into a 16-hour workday. But soon enough, the pace will slow. He insists it will.
As he comes out from behind that conference-room desk, he grumbles, “I’m supposed to be retired. My wife reminds me every evening that I promised I was retiring, and here I am, more involved than I was before. I’ve been thinking very seriously about how to get the hell out of it. I’m not going to solve all the problems of the world.”
Then, with his stack of papers in hand, Julius Chambers hurries out of the conference room and disappears into his office. Presumably to try to solve all the problems of the world.