On the morning of Oct. 12, 1970, Julius Chambers, a 34-year-old Charlotte lawyer, stood before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue the most important civil rights case since the court outlawed school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education 16 years earlier.
Arguing the other side was U.S. Solicitor General Erwin Griswold, the former Dean of the Harvard Law School and the former head of the American Bar Association. Much of the establishment was lined up against Chambers, the attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
North Carolina Gov. Bob Scott issued a proclamation calling Oct. 12 a day of “earnest hope” that the U.S. Supreme Court would “preserve for us the greater values of better public education and individual liberty.”
But Chambers argued that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system could not be desegregated without busing to achieve a racial balance. In a landmark decision, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in favor of busing.
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Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education was Chambers’ most important legal victory, but hardly his only one. Chambers and his Charlotte law firm, now called Ferguson, Stein Adkins Gresham & Sumter, the state’s first racially integrated firm, waged a legal battle across the state to open opportunities for black people in the 1960s and 1970s, whether it was the YMCA in Raleigh, the Shrine Bowl in Charlotte, a barbecue restaurant in New Bern, or dozens of school districts across North Carolina.
It is a remarkable story well told by Richard A. Rosen, a retired law professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill and by Joseph Mosnier, a UNC-trained scholar, in their biography “Julius Chambers, A Life In the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights.” It is a story that anyone interested in North Carolina history, and particularly the struggle for racial equality, should read.
Chambers was an unlikely figure to be arguing a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The son of an auto mechanic in the tiny Montgomery County town of Mt. Gilead, he had been educated in segregated and inferior black schools. His elementary school was a wood-framed facility with a sheet metal roof, six classrooms with worn desks and blackboards, oil-soaked floors that were a fire hazard, an outdoor handpump and pit toilets. He was bused to the county’s only black high school in a nearby town, a trip that took an hour one-way.
When he graduated, Chambers said, “I didn’t know how to write an essay and I could hardly spell.” Still, he was determined to be a lawyer – a career inspired by seeing white lawyers in Mt. Gilead refuse to help his father after he was cheated out of a large amount of money by a white business owner.
After earning his undergraduate degree from historically black N.C. Central University in Durham, Chambers enrolled at the law school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1959, which had only recently started admitting African-Americans. Although excluded from the school’s social life and treated coolly by some of the faculty, Chambers made national news by finishing first in his law class and serving as editor of the prestigious law review.
But even with sterling academic credentials, and carrying himself in a soft-spoken, modest manner, none of the blue-chip law firms in North Carolina or Washington D.C. opened their doors to him.
So Chambers opened his own firm, as both a private practice and as the North Carolina arm of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Chambers drove across the state meeting in black churches encouraging people to come forward to legally challenge segregation in the schools, in public facilities and in employment. At one point in 1970, Chambers and his firm had sued 50 of the state’s 160 local school districts.
The work was often dangerous. His car was dynamited by the Ku Klux Klan in New Bern while he spoke inside a church. Both his house and his law office in Charlotte were firebombed, as was his father’s auto garage in Mt. Gilead.
Such racism was not confined to fringe elements. In 1968 N.C. Chief Justice R. Hunt Parker left the courtroom when Chambers rose to make his argument and returned only after Chambers finished – treatment that Parker also accorded other black lawyers.
By the 1970s, Chambers had become the nation’s most prominent civil rights lawyer. In 1984, he became the director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in New York, a position he held for nine years. He had hoped one day to follow his hero, Thurgood Marshall, to the federal bench, but that never happened.
In 1993, he returned to North Carolina to become chancellor of N.C. Central University, where he remained for another nine years. He died in 2013, his memorial service broadcast live over UNC-TV.
The son of an auto mechanic, who started with a poor education, and who barely ever raised his voice, Chambers helped engineer a social revolution in North Carolina through drive, intelligence and grit.
“Julius Chambers, A Life In the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights”
By Richard A. Rosen and Joseph Mosnier
UNC Press, 408 pages
Richard A. Rosen and Joseph Mosnier will be speaking and signing books at these bookstores in February:
7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill
7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, at Quail Ridge Books, North Hills, Raleigh.
7 p.m. Feb. 28, Regulator Bookshop, Ninth Street, Durham