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"The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is simply the best civil rights law firm in American history." -- President Obama

'We are by no means there yet' Group will meet to discuss local progress in civil rights.

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Friday, September 30, 2011

Nearly 40 years ago, a group of N.C. blacks met in Charlotte to take stock of where African-Americans were statewide in education, housing and jobs.

Despite the 1960s civil rights victories, blacks still lived in a segregated world - many clustered in public housing. Their schools were still largely separate and ill-equipped. The rise of blacks in corporate America was slow.

That was 1972, when the fledgling N.C. Fundraising Committee for the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund held its first yearly fundraising dinner in Charlotte.

Saturday, the committee will take stock on progress made since that first dinner, at a daylong civil-rights symposium at Johnson C. Smith University.

"We've made good progress, but we are by no means there yet," said committee co-chair Sarah Stevenson of Charlotte, the committee's first chair after it was moved to Charlotte from Durham in 1972.

"There have been gains, but not nearly enough. We're still struggling with many of the old problems."

The symposium will include workshops focusing again on housing, education and employment. During the event, the committee plans to honor Charlotte civil-rights lawyer Julius Chambers, and wife Vivian, for their years of fighting racial discrimination.

Chambers, who turns 75 next week, was raised in Mount Gilead, a rigidly segregated town 45 miles of Charlotte. He has spent nearly 50 years using the legal system to speed integration and protect civil rights.

His career is studded with accomplishments. After law school at UNCChapel Hill, where he was the first black law review editor, he helped found the state's first interracial law firm, in Charlotte.

He appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court numerous times. In 1992, he was directing the NAACP's legal defense fund when he was tapped to be chancellor of his alma mater, N.C. Central University.

But he's perhaps best known for his most famous case, Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg. That case led to the 1971 Supreme Court ruling that allowed school districts to bus students to desegregate schools to achieve racial balance.

He and Vivian Chambers paid a price for his work over the years: His car and their house were bombed. Arsonists twice torched his father's auto garage in Mount Gilead and burned his Charlotte law office. Yet the violence never deterred the Chambers.

It was at Julius Chamber's urging that the fundraising committee moved its dinner to Charlotte decades ago.

"They've been in this together," said Stevenson, who in 1980 became Mecklenburg County's first elected black woman when she won a seat on the school board. "We didn't want to honor one without the other. They were the beginning of this fundraising effort and got the rest of us involved."