The courageous Julius Chambers passing by

August 6, 2013 

There’s a scene in the classic movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” in which the black Rev. Sykes is sitting in the segregated balcony of the courthouse at the end of the trial. When Atticus Finch is leaving the courtroom, Sykes rises, as do all the black people. He tells Finch’s tomboy daughter, Scout, who is sitting with the minister, to stand. She asks, “Why?”

“Because your father’s passing by,” Sykes replies.

All North Carolina should rise at the “passing” of Julius Chambers.

Chambers died Friday at age 76. He was a Charlotte lawyer and former chancellor of N.C. Central University. He was not an eloquent preacher like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but he was as close to Dr. King as North Carolina’s going to find.

I met Chambers on one or two occasions, and he was soft-spoken and polite even though he was a legend by that time. In the courtroom, he was fierce and dogged. He argued eight civil rights cases –eight – all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He won all eight.

He was first in his class at the Law School of the University of North Carolina, and he was the first black editor of the school’s Law Review.

It took six pages for the Charlotte Observer to recount his accomplishments, including the historic Swann-Charlotte/Mecklenburg School System case that integrated all of the system’s public schools.

But what struck me as a historian was the very real dangers he and his family faced during his nonviolent fight for civil rights. Reading old newspaper and magazine clips, I better appreciated his bravery.

The state during those times was electric with tensions and anger and hatred. Most people expected violence on any day. When Chambers was giving a speech in New Bern after filing the Swann suit, his car outside was bombed and destroyed.Another night, after he had filed suit to integrate the Shriners’ high school football game, his home was bombed with dynamite while he and his wife were sleeping. Think about that.

How many of us, after two bombings – one aimed not only at you but also your family – would continue to fight?

His response to the car bombing defined the man and his career. He told a frightened colleague who asked frantically, “What are we going to do?” that, “We’re going to go back inside and finish the meeting.”

That’s what Julius Chambers did with his life in a dangerous and historic time. Whether it was going to college, becoming a successful lawyer, winning civil rights cases, raising university standards, tending his family, Julius Chambers finished the job.

And North Carolina is a better place for it. All rise.

Barlow Herget, a former Raleigh City Council member, is a commentator on State Government Radio.

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