In the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, 15-year-old Prince Chambliss was sitting in Sunday school class in downtown Birmingham, Ala., when he heard a bomb explode. Running outside, he spotted a cloud of smoke rising from the 16th Street Baptist Church, a launching point for marches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights organizations and students. Chambliss raced the five blocks to the site of the explosion. “It couldn’t have taken that long to run from my church to this one,” recalls Chambliss, a partner with Evans & Petree in Memphis, “and when we get there the police are already there, and they’ve got the area all blocked off. They won’t let anybody go in and then they come with these dogs and it just gets to be bad and we leave very soon.” The blast killed four young girls. All had been his friends.
As reporters and mourners swarmed the packed funeral, Chambliss stood outside, unable to squeeze in. “And this very well-dressed black man walks up and asks me some questions. He says, ‘Young man, you should be in there. Follow me,’” Chambliss says. “He takes me up these stairs on the outside of the church and we come into the balcony and I can see Martin Luther King in the pulpit. But I can’t really see the audience except to know that there are people standing everywhere. I don’t know this for sure, but I think that man was Malcolm X.”
After all these years, the bombing still strikes a nerve. “The governor [George Wallace] was saying, ‘Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,’” Chambliss says, his voice choking with emotion. “But he was wrong.”
Despite his encounters with prejudice, the civil litigator and champion tennis player has, without self-induced fanfare, shattered glass ceilings throughout his career. In 1981, the modest, easygoing Chambliss—one colleague describes him as “humble to a fault”—became the first African-American partner in a majority law firm in Tennessee. In 1996 he was named the first African-American president of the Memphis-Shelby County Bar Association, and in 2001 he became the first African-American president of the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners. Black Enterprise named him one of America’s Top Black Lawyers in 2003.
William Bruce of Adams & Reese in Nashville has known Chambliss for more than 20 years. “He’s a fine trial lawyer and he also has a reputation within the legal community and otherwise of having very high ethical standards, of being just a top-notch, straight-shooting guy,” Bruce says. “He’s low-key but very friendly, especially if you take the time to sit down and get to know him as a person. He doesn’t blow his own horn. He doesn’t bluster. He just quietly goes about his business, and that business is practicing law at the highest level.”
The oldest of four children, Prince Caesar Chambliss Jr. grew up in Birmingham, the son of a minister dad and social worker mom. His paternal grandmother, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, was a vital influence in his life. “My earliest memory is of being barely able to walk … and she had taught me all the books of the Bible.” At “tent meetings,” he says, “I would be on a stage and I had this little white suit––short pants, I didn’t get long pants until I was 12—and I would say the books of the Bible, from Genesis through Revelations. If you stopped me, I had to start from the beginning. But I could say all of ’em.”
Chambliss’ mother was determined that one of her children would attend an Ivy League school. “We didn’t really know much about the Ivy League except that it was in the North,” Chambliss confesses. So when a Quaker organization identified him as one of the brightest African-American students in the South and invited him to finish high school in a progressive program in Connecticut, “it was just clear that I would go.” In 1964, he boarded a plane for the first time, moved in with a white family and enrolled in Richfield (Conn.) High School. He was the only African American there. The John Birch Society protested his admission, supposedly because he was a “non-resident,” and The New York Times covered the story. “The interesting thing was that [the school] had an American field service exchange program where students come from other countries and live with families,” Chambliss says. “At the time they were protesting me, there was a young man there from Brazil and a young woman there from France and a girl from somewhere else. This program had been going on for years and nobody had ever said anything about it.”
From time to time, Chambliss thought about being a lawyer—two uncles and his paternal grandfather already were—but his love of science steered him toward medicine. When his chemistry and physics classes turned out to be grueling, Chambliss had second thoughts. And there was another reason to switch to law. “With the civil rights thing going on, it seemed to make sense. You could help people,” he says. “But the fear I had—and it seems kind of funny now—was that by the time I got through high school, everybody was gonna be fine, that there would be nothing to do.”
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1974—former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was in his class—Chambliss started applying at majority law firms in Birmingham. They all turned him down. “There were one or two people whom I had conversations with very privately who looked down at the floor, shuffled their feet, stammered and turned colors. They said, ‘The judges are all white men. Our clients are all white men. If you come to work for us you wouldn’t go to court. You couldn’t have any contact with clients.’”
Percy Harvey, an African-American friend and Harvard classmate who had been hired at an all-white Memphis law firm, urged Chambliss to seek work in that city. So in 1976 Chambliss applied at Armstrong Allen, the largest firm in the state with a client list full of automobile manufacturers, insurance companies and other large corporations, and a mailing address that simply read, “Armstrong Allen, Memphis, Tennessee.” Offered the associate job, he asked, “If I come to work here, will you let me go to court?”
The partners, he says, were amused. “Of course,” they replied. “All of our lawyers do.”
“They also said I could have all the client contact I wanted,” Chambliss says. “They had no qualms about it. Of course Memphis may have paid a high price for that kind of attitude. I think part of it was that Martin Luther King was killed here in 1968, seven years before. I think people were trying to make things right.”
Chambliss doesn’t recall any overt prejudice in the courtroom during his days as a young lawyer, though he does fault himself for occasionally “charging off in all directions” and over-preparing with “four arguments when two might do.” But in 1979, after defending Ford Motor Company in a lawsuit in rural Selmer, Tenn., just a few paces away from the spot where Sheriff Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame kept his office, an onlooker felt compelled to bring him down a notch. After the verdict was read, a man in overalls walked up and placed his hand on Chambliss’ shoulder. “Boy, that was a mighty fine talk you gave in there today,” he said.
“Well sir, I’m not sure how good it was. We lost,” Chambliss replied.
“Boy, you didn’t think you were gonna win, did you?” the man asked with a grin.
“I don’t think he meant anything by it,” Chambliss notes. “And it wasn’t so much the racial thing as, ‘We’re out here in this rural area and you’re representing this big company and you’re not gonna get away with it.’
“Of course, we appealed to the Court of Appeals and got it fixed.”
Chambliss’ knack for “fixing” things did not go unnoticed by Thomas Prewitt Sr., a legendary trial lawyer at Armstrong Allen. Chambliss was eager to spend time with Prewitt, but the elder attorney preferred working solo. In 1980, Prewitt was hired to defend Holiday Inn in a lawsuit brought by a contractor claiming the hotel chain owed him for work he had done in Nairobi, Kenya. The plaintiff had not paid his subcontractors and had racked up significant debts with African craftsmen. Chambliss quietly researched the issue. “I came up with this theory that if someone sues someone and the person who is making the claim says that they’re obligated to someone else but they haven’t paid the someone else, they can’t make the person that they say owes them pay them until they pay the person that they say they owe. And [Prewitt] thought that was the best thing he’d ever heard of. So we started working on this together.” The down side, says Chambliss, is that, thanks to his enterprising research, “I spoiled the trip to Africa.” But he won the case.
Becoming the first African-American partner in a majority firm in Tennessee was a bittersweet moment for Chambliss. When the promotion came, he learned he’d been named “junior” partner, a distinction he still seems puzzled about. “In my view, people are people,” he says. “People have basic needs. Everyone says: Go to school, get up in the morning, go to work, do your job. So you do these things and then somehow things don’t seem to go the same way for you as they do for other people.”
After 25 years with Armstrong Allen, in 2001 Chambliss joined what was then Stokes Bartholomew Evans & Petree. He had become the go-to defense attorney for major corporations in Tennessee, so a prestigious firm with a Nashville office seemed like a good fit. He and partner Scott Frick recently wrapped up a five-year premises liability case. “He’s very methodical in terms of how the pleadings are presented to the court,” Frick says. “There would be times we’d be making an argument and, talking to Prince, we’d come up with another angle that we had perhaps not considered.” What’s more, Frick adds, “He just has a great deal of credibility when he walks into the courtroom. He clearly is not one to bang his fist on the table and make a big show. Lawyers on the plaintiff’s side tend to be a little dramatic in how they present things to the judge and the jury. That’s the thing that makes Prince a great lawyer: In response to that, he presents much more of a down-to-earth, cooler, methodical approach.”
Another thing that makes Chambliss so effective, says partner Michael Marshall, is his humanity. “It’s easy to get lost in the thicket of legal arguments and never ask about the human realities,” Marshall says. “I find that Prince is always really good at saying, ‘OK, we understand what the law is now. What’s the human reality here that’s likely to sway a judge or a jury?’”
Chambliss’ people skills served him well in 1998, during what could have been a disastrous mediation case. Opposing counsel asked him to orchestrate a meeting between several plaintiffs, a large manufacturing client of Chambliss’ firm and other parties. “I thought it’d be a good idea for the people who were seeking to recover money to tell the people they were trying to get it from why they thought they should get it. So they did.” Soon after, a rattled plaintiff jumped up, screamed an obscenity and marched out of the room.
Horrified, Chambliss ran after the man and caught him at the elevator just as the door opened. Determined to make things right, Chambliss got on the elevator with him. “Look, this is my first mediation. You gotta give me a chance,” he coaxed. “Please come back up and let’s work this out.” The plaintiff finally agreed. Chambliss divided the parties into separate conference rooms and spent two days volleying back and forth between them. “And then after 1:00 in the morning,” he says, “it worked out and they settled it. Everybody got a little of what they wanted.
“You just tell me the problem and I can give you a solution or point you in a direction to get a solution,” Chambliss says. “I don’t like bumps in the road. And I like to help people smooth things over and make things right.”