In this installment of celebrating Black History Month, we chronicle the life of former LDF Director-Counsel Julius Chambers.
Julius Chambers was a brilliant civil rights lawyer with calm tenacity. That “cool under fire” resolve was on display when he was a target of racial violence for the . . . work he did . . . .
In the late 1960s, Chambers’ home was bombed, his car dynamited, his law office bombed, his father’s garage burned twice, and, on February 5, 1971, a firebomb gutted his Charlotte, North Carolina-based office, burning his books, papers and records. It took 50 men with seven FIRE? trucks an hour to get the fire under control. Damages to the building exceeded $50,000 and many legal records were completely destroyed.
That last incident would have discouraged many, but Chambers continued his fight for justice. LDF promised to re-establish his office as he prepared to appear before the courts shortly after the bombing. At that time, Chambers had 33 desegregation cases pending before courts all over the state of North Carolina, and one landmark school desegregation case before the Supreme Court.
The numerous threats Julius Chambers endured in that time speak to his many successes in the battle for civil rights–a battle he committed himself to fighting when he was a teenager growing up in Mt. Gilead, east of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Young Chambers learned about racial discrimination one afternoon in 1949 as his father explained how the family had been cheated out of $2,000 by a white man who refused to pay for repairs that his father had made on the man’s truck, and drove away jeering. For the rest of that day, Chambers’ father went from lawyer to lawyer, but nobody wanted to represent a colored mechanic in a dispute with a white man. The unfairness of the situation made such an impression on young Chambers that he decided to become an attorney.
In 1954, the year the Supreme Court handed down its landmark ruling in Brown, Chambers graduated from high school. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill was closed to blacks. That fall, Chambers enrolled at North Carolina Central University. In 1958, he graduated first in his class, and after earning a Master’s degree in history at the University of Michigan, returned to his home state to study law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Chambers was chosen Editor-in-Chief of the University of North Carolina Law Review, becoming the first black person to hold that position at a historically white law school in the South.
After law school, Chambers was selected as LDF’s first intern. One year later, he returned to North Carolina where he opened his own law practice. From this one-person office, Chambers created the first integrated law firm in North Carolina history. In his first year in Charlotte, he filed 34 school desegregation lawsuits, 10 public accommodations lawsuits, and 10 suits challenging discrimination by public hospitals. With the assistance of lawyers from LDF, he litigated many historic civil rights cases, including the 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a Supreme Court case that upheld busing as an appropriate way to integrate schools.
Chambers left his firm in 1984 to lead LDF at a time when the conservative-dominated Supreme Court was shredding legislative efforts to redress the inequities wrought by decades of racial discrimination. In addition, the Court placed heavier burdens on employees to prove discrimination, raised fees for filing lawsuits, and opened the door for whites to challenge affirmative action.
Under Chambers’ leadership, LDF mobilized grassroots organizations and planned educational campaigns to heighten awareness of the dangers posed by the Supreme Court’s backpedaling on civil rights issues. LDF continued filing suits ranging from discrimination in hospital emergency rooms in New Orleans to pushing for testing of lead poisoning in poor children living in California and Texas. In 1992, LDF won a record settlement in an employment discrimination case involving Shoney’s Restaurants, which agreed to pay African-American employees $105 million and to implement aggressive equal employment opportunity measures.
Chambers served as LDF’s Director-Counsel for nine years until 1993, when he was inaugurated as Chancellor of North Carolina Central University. Chambers passed away in August of 2013 leaving a lasting legacy in the fight for justice and as one of the leading voices of the civil rights era.