Saunders: Chambers’ brand of justice must live on

barry.saunders@newsobserver.comAugust 4, 2013 

For my money, the three greatest contributions to humankind made by someone from Richmond County, or right next to it, were by Aunt Jemima, the dude who created the Family Dollar Stores and Julius Chambers.

The world will never get enough pancakes, which Anna Short Harrington of Rockingham cooked and famously symbolized on the box of pancake mix.

The world can also never get enough inexpensive clothes, like those $3 corduroy pants we used to wear from Leon Levine’s Family Dollar Store. Those pants were an essential part of back-to-school shopping for poor kids in Rockingham, and I recall that they came in any color you wanted – as long as you wanted brown.

The world will also never get enough justice.

That’s where Julius Chambers comes in. Chambers, the Mount Gilead native who became a nationally known attorney and fighter for justice, died Friday. He was 76. Mount Gilead was next door in Montgomery County, but Chambers always spoke fondly of childhood friends from neighboring Richmond. There wasn’t, as George Wallace, the late governor of Alabama once said about the Republican and Democratic parties, “a dime’s worth of difference between” the two.

Henry Frye Sr., the first African-American to serve on the N.C. Supreme Court, is from Ellerbe in Richmond County, about 20 miles from Mount Gilead, and he laughed when remembering how Chambers “used to brag about Mount Gilead being bigger than Ellerbe.”

“Julius,” Frye said, “was not just interested in civil rights. He fought for what they call ‘silver rights’ that benefited working-class white people and black folks. ... He was a brilliant guy. I just thought the world of him.”

So did Ken Lewis, an attorney and former U.S. Senate candidate. Lewis, a Winston-Salem native, credits Chambers with inspiring his legal and public service career. “To me, growing up in North Carolina in the 1960s and ’70s, he was an early inspiration and example of how one person could create change,” Lewis said. “As a young person, I remember knowing about the lawsuits that he brought and being inspired by that. That’s one of the reasons I became a lawyer.”

During his career, Chambers argued eight cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He won all eight. Of course, that was B.C. – Before Clarence (Thomas) got his black robe.

Despite his professional and academic achievements – Chambers was the first black editor of the N.C. Law Review and graduated at the top of his law class – Chambers was a gentle and soft-spoken man. He was walking, talking history, and every time I left his presence, I’d have to stop and say “Wow, I just talked to Julius Chambers.”

Years ago, after I’d returned from England, where I’d had a spot of tea with Her Highness – not really, but I did purchase a commemorative bar of soap from Buckingham Palace – I took to wearing perched atop my head a bowler and carrying a walking stick in the tradition of English gentlemen. When I showed up like that to interview Chambers at his office after he’d become chancellor of his alma mater N.C. Central University, he shook his head in mock horror and said, “Boy, they should have never let you out of Richmond County.”

Chambers, Ken Lewis said, “was a real giant of a lawyer, a trailblazer. ... In many respects, (his death) marks the end of an era.”

God, let’s hope not.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2818.

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