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Remembering Julius LeVonne Chambers

From the MCB President:

The Dean of UNC School of Law, John C. "Jack" Boger, circulated word of the death of our esteemed colleague Julius L. Chambers with an inspirational account of Julius's courageous and significant life.  With Dean Boger's permission, I have shared his account below.  In the October edition of the Mecklenburg Bar News we will have further thoughts and tributes to this remarkable man.

--Tricia M. Derr, MCB President


Remembering Julius Levonne Chambers

October 6, 1936 - August 2, 2013

By:  John C. Boger

It is with great sadness that I share the news that Julius LeVonne Chambers, one of the greatest American civil rights lawyers of the 20thcentury and one of Carolina Law's finest graduates, died late this afternoon in Charlotte....
 
Julius was born in 1936 in Mount Gilead, North Carolina, a small, rural community east of Charlotte. His father was an automobile mechanic, and Julius learned about racial discrimination early.  His desire to become a lawyer addressing issues of discrimination deepened when, as a teenager, he remembered  a white customer refusing to pay a bill for services rendered by his father, and no white lawyer in Montgomery County or the surrounding area agreeing to accept his father's case. Julius graduated from high school in May 1954, the very month the United States Supreme Court announced its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. An excellent student, he  entered North Carolina Central University (then North Carolina College) in the fall of that year, where he studied history and became President of the Student Government in his senior year. He received his BA degree summa cum laude, and  then earned an MA degree in history from the University of Michigan. In 1959 he was admitted to the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which had only recently begun admitting African American students under the pressure of litigation. A brilliant and determined law student, Chambers was elected Editor in Chief of the North Carolina Law Review in his third year, becoming the first African American to hold this title at any historically white law school in the South. He graduated in 1962, ranking first in his class of 100 students. Thereafter, he studied and taught at Columbia University Law School while earning an LL.M. degree.
 
In 1963, Mr. Chambers was tapped as the first intern in a new program of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), designed to provide promising African-American law graduates with 12 months of training in civil rights litigation before sending them home to open civil rights law practices in areas of need. Julius Chambers became one of the new generation of "LDF cooperating attorneys"  who had begun their legal careers working with Jack Greenberg and other leading advocates at LDF in New York.
 
In June 1964,. Chambers opened his law practice in a cold water walkup on East Trade Street in Charlotte. This one-person law practice eventually became the first integrated law firm in North Carolina history.  In its first decade, this law firm did more to influence evolving federal civil rights law than any other private law practice in the United States. Chambers and his founding partners, James E. Ferguson II and Adam Stein, worked with lawyers at LDF to litigate a vast range of civil rights cases that changed the face of the nation.  In scores of school desegregation, employment discrimination, voting rights, health care litigation and related matters, Juilus Chambers and his partners challenged the regime of Jim Crow segregation and white supremacy that had prevailed in North Carolina and the South for nearly 100 years following the short-lived experiment in racial equality during Reconstruction.  These legal challenges met with fierce resistance in some quarters. Julius's office was firebombed; his home was attacked; his automobile was burned up in a church parking lot while he was inside at a community meeting with clients. Yet he persisted against all efforts to intimidate or deter him, eventually arguing and winning landmark Supreme Court rulings in such cases as Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), (the famous school busing decision), Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) and Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody (1974) (two of the Supreme Court's most significant cases interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, governing employment discrimination). His firm was based in Charlotte, but his practice took Chambers literally to every corner of the State and beyond. Hundreds of African American ministers and community leaders knew that Julius Chambers would willingly drop everything, drive four or five hours on short notice, and meet with poor or disenfranchised individuals or community groups who had nowhere else to turn.
 
In 1984, Chambers was invited to become Director Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City. He was the third Director-Counsel of LDF, following Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg.  At the LDF, he became the field marshal for 24 staff attorneys and approximately 400 cooperating attorneys around the nation. LDF has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles and maintains an active caseload of more than 1,000 cases, covering such areas as education, voting rights, capital punishment, employment, housing and prisons. Under Chambers' leadership, the LDF became the first line of defense against the political assault on civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs that began in the 1970s and 1980s. He also initiated a 'Poverty & Justice' program, focusing on the legacy of racial segregation and ongoing discrimination that continued to trap millions of African American families and individuals in segregated neighborhoods lacking good schools, adequate police and fire services, high-wage employment and amenities that other largely white and middle class communities took for granted.
 
In 1993, at the invitation of then-President of the University of North Carolina system C.D. Spangler, Julius Chambers returned to North Carolina to become Chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University. Under his leadership, the University launched a $50 million capital fundraising campaign and established its first ten endowed chairs, including the one-million dollar Charles Hamilton Houston Chair at the School of Law. He also oversaw creation of a biotechnology/biomedicine institute eventually named for him. Julius could not and never did give up his work as a lawyer. In 1986 he had argued and won a unanimous decision in a key Voting Rights Act case, Thornberg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986). In 1995 he was one of three lawyers who argued Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 (1996) before the Supreme Court, another landmark redistricting case defending the creation of Congressional districts under the Voting Rights Act. This case forced the Court to decide the constitutionality of two North Carolina congressional districts that were redrawn after the 1990 census according to provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act to ensure equitable minority representation. 
 
Julius retired from his position as Chancellor of North Carolina Central University on June 30, 2001 and reentered private law practice with the firm he started in 1967. That same year, he accepted the invitation of then-Dean of UNC Law, Gene Nichol, to become the inaugural director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights. Julius conceived of a University-based Center that would carry out three missions simultaneously: (1) to train a new generation of law graduates who would be committed to civil rights advocacy in the 21st century; (2) to provide a place where sophisticated social scientific and other research would be commissioned, examined, and shaped to address issues of racial and economic injustice and inequality;  and (3) to provide strategic legal counsel and services to lower-income and non-white communities in North Carolina and the Southeast. Chambers was able to attract a steady array of support from major regional and national funders, including The Ford Foundation, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Jesse Ball DuPont Fund, the Knight Foundation, and the Fletcher Foundation, among many others. With those funds, he built a civil rights 'law firm' at the UNC Center that engaged in advocacy at state, regional and national levels. The Center began its life in a collaboration with the Harvard Civil Rights Project on a conference that led to a special issue of the North Carolina Law Review and UNC Press volume entitled "School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back?"  In subsequent years, the Center focused national attention on the problems of 'municipal underbounding,' the exclusion of African American communities from the city limits of the towns of which they had been historically a part, thereby limiting the voting rights and municipal services of black residents. It pressed to end statewide school inequities by participating in North Carolinas Leandro lawsuit and the recently retried Pitt County school desegregation lawsuit. The Center under Julius Chambers filed a brief in the Grutter v. Bollinger case, arguing to preserve affirmative action in law school admissions. During his nearly ten years as director, Chamber received dozens of national and state awards for his lifetime of service. When he announced his retirement as Center director in 2010, he was honored at a festive celebration at the Carolina Inn, where featured speakers included Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, then-Governor Beverly Perdue of North Carolina, and President Barack Obama, who offered a video tribute to Julius Chambers' life and work.
 
In recent years, Chambers had returned to Charlotte and continued his legal work insofar as his failing health would permit. Last year, the death of his dear wife and life partner Vivian Chambers came as a blow; more recently, he lost his 96-year-old mother. To the end, Julius remained the thoroughly decent, devoted, modest but relentlessly principled champion of those who most desperately needed his services - African American families, communities, and institutions, poor people of every background and heritage, women who had been oppressed by social constraints. I remember one afternoon when I was in Charlotte, prepared to meet with Julius and other lawyers on a citywide school challenge. We needed to go to lunch before the meeting. In his outer office, as we headed out, Julius spotted an older, black woman, humbly dressed. He went over to her, as he so often did to those visibly without power or influence and asked with real interest why she sat waiting in the firm's office. She hesitated at first, but then explained that her son had special educational needs, that he had been locked in a supply closet without justification, that the school's officials seemed indifferent, and that she hoped he might be of help. "Come to lunch with us," he said without hesitation, "and tell us about your son's problem." They don't make lawyers, or human beings, any finer than the Mount Gilead native this State and nation lost to death this evening.


 

 

 
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