Champion of the Courtroom, Dies at 76

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Photo: newsobserver.com

Civil rights attorney Julius LeVonne Chambers died after a long illness.

He was 76.

Julius Chambers was a champion of the courtroom. A masterful attorney of great integrity he was known for his smooth southern drawl and determined spirit. Julius Chambers argued eight cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning them all.

Julius Chambers graduated summa cum laude in 1958 from present-day North Carolina Central University. After receiving his master’s degree in history from the University of Michigan, he attended the formerly segregated University of North Carolina Law School from which he graduated first in his class and became the first Black editor-in-chief of their Law Review. He began his civil rights career as an intern for Thurgood Marshall, who would become the nation’s first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Julius Chambers opened the first racially integrated law firm in North Carolina. “His home and his car were firebombed on separate occasions in 1965, and his office was burned to the ground in 1971, during the height of some of his most contentious civil rights litigation,” the NAACP reported. His father’s auto repair shop was torched. However, Mr. Chambers was undeterred in his stance against racial discrimination.

In 1971, Mr. Chambers made legal history when he won the U.S. Supreme Court public school case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education which upheld busing for racial integration. He served as Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., a civil rights organization, from 1984 to 1993.

Geraldine Sumter, his law partner at Ferguson Chambers and Sumter, recalls days after filing the Swann public school law case that Chambers’ car was fire bombed. When asked what he was going to do Chambers calmly said, “We’re going to go back inside and finish the meeting.” Opposition did not make him bitter – only more determined.

“He was the best of the best,” said Norma Lewis, former assistant to Mr. Chambers for many years. “There was no one like him.” That sentiment was held by colleagues as well as opponents. “He was a team player,” said Bill Aiken, a long-time associate. “Julius Chambers believed that the strength of the team lies in a mutual belief that all of us together are smarter than any single one of us.”

Julius Chambers was born in segregated Mount Gilead, NC to William and Matilde Chambers who owned a garage and general store. It is said Julius Chambers resolved to be an attorney when his father, an auto mechanic, could not find a lawyer to sue a White customer who refused to pay a Black man $2,000 for repairs. The money from those repairs was intended for Julius’ college tuition. 

Julius refused to get angry about racism. “He was my personal hero,” said U.S. Rep. Mel Watt of NC and one of Chambers’ protégés. Mr. Chambers mentored many young attorneys. This writer was a recipient of his kindness and served as an NAACP LDF civil rights attorney on the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg case in the 1990s.

By 1998, however, the Chambers busing victory was under attack as ‘reversed discrimination. But, “Chambers realized that his civil rights work couldn’t be completed in a lifetime, and new generations of lawyers had to take on that responsibility,” said UNC School of Law Dean Jack Boger.

Mr. Chambers was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Julius Chambers served as chancellor of his alma mater North Carolina Central University from 1993 to 2001. That college’s Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute opened in 1999.

Vivian Chambers, his wife, passed away last year. Julius Chambers is survived by two children Derrick and Judy, a brother, and three grandchildren.

 

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” and a writer covering the U.S. Supreme Court as well as major legal issues.

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