Julius Chambers warned that conservatives would oppose UNC’s Civil Rights Center

Julius Chambers in his law office in 2002.
Julius Chambers in his law office in 2002.

The law school in Chapel Hill is a storied institution. It has produced remarkable North Carolina leaders like Frank Graham, Bill Friday, Terry Sanford, Bill Aycock, Suzie Sharp, Jim Hunt and Henry Frye. But, at bottom, it’s a school for lawyers. And none doubt UNC’s greatest lawyer was Julius Chambers.

When I came to Carolina to become dean in 1999, one of my principal goals, ratified by the faculty and Chancellor Michael Hooker, was to establish a civil rights center. It would link powerfully to the state’s history, focus on its continuing challenges, provide otherwise unattainable experiences for students, and, I hoped, be led by America’s greatest civil rights lawyer, then N.C. Central chancellor, Julius Chambers.

It took eighteen months to talk Chambers into coming. I visited him eight times during his last year at Central. The first four he said no. The next couple, he bent a little, saying he’d think about it. On the last visit, he was serious. He began by asking, “do you have some kind of death wish?” This is North Carolina, he explained. “They won’t let you open a center to represent poor black people.” And if they do, “and if we do our work, they’ll close us down.” I was naïve. He wasn’t.

Today a couple of political lawyers on the Board of Governors seek to close the Civil Rights Center. The fevered partisans, who, to put it generously, know less than nothing about legal education, would bar the law school from teaching future civil rights lawyers the way Chambers believed most effective. It’s like Donald Trump demanding to instruct Pope Francis on humility.

The move, of course, is nakedly ideological. When BOG member Steve Long questioned center leaders, he said he wouldn’t object to the program’s work if it focused on Second Amendment claims or helped purportedly religious folks discriminate against gays and lesbians. If the Center were to offer a campus “guns in every dorm room” initiative, the BOG would endow it, not close it.

We started two centers at Carolina my first term as dean – a civil rights center and a banking law center. Both sought to drill down into interests, needs and capabilities singular to the Tar Heel state. The first was controversial from the day of its announcement. Oddly, in fifteen years, I’ve never heard a wisp of complaint about the banking center. It hasn’t been hauled before review boards or questioned by angry legislators. There is nothing more natural, and expected, than law in service to powerful economic interest.

I was unsurprised to read Long had expressed particular umbrage at the Center’s successful work on behalf of the beleaguered Royal Oak community in Brunswick County. The small, historic, working class black hamlet – located on the wrong side of Highway 17 – has, for generations, been forced to receive “everything no one wants” in Brunswick.

A giant, unlined, solid waste facility, a county waste transfer station, a relocated animal shelter, and a waste water treatment plant mean that the community of 300 overtly subsidizes the wealthy beach towns across the highway with its health, its air and water quality, its property values, its children’s well-being, and, occasionally, its residents’ lives. Even after the county sent water pipes to the new dog pound, it wouldn’t tie in Royal Oak residents.

When Brunswick sought to place yet another dump in Royal Oak, at the request of local residents, the Civil Rights Center stepped in – helping save the dignity, prospects, and life chances of an abused rural village. In my view, the students and young lawyers representing the Royal Oak litigants did some of the most ennobling legal work ever to come out of UNC.

Long, on the other hand, thinks it would have been fine to represent the county in its continuing efforts to subjugate the Royal Oak neighborhood. It would have been even better to file an amicus brief on behalf of the high-tone developers looking to foist off costs on isolated, impoverished residents. The real sin, for Long, was in representing the actual victims in Brunswick. Law is the exclusive preserve of wealth and privilege. It’s apparently crucial that the university reflect Long’s ignoble premise.

Continued partisan interference with academic independence makes this a trying time for UNC. We’re also poorly equipped to defend ourselves. We haven’t had, in Chapel Hill, such weak leadership in decades. Our chancellor, provost and new law school dean have yet to find a principle they won’t surrender to save their purportedly prestigious positions.

But if the Civil Rights Center is closed, the law school will face serious accreditation problems in the months ahead. The ABA and the American Association of Law Schools won’t simply say, “we know you have a brutal legislature and cowardly leaders, so we’ll let it pass.” Students will suffer accordingly. And its hard for a school to compete nationally when suspended by accrediting agencies. Once again, we’ll pay heavy costs for mandated right wing experimentation. Chambers called it.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at the University of North Carolina.