Beloved Civil Rights Activist Julius Chambers Passed Away at the Age of 76

August 6, 2013 - 8 minute read

Julius Levonne ChambersAttorney Julius L. Chambers, civil rights lawyer and leader, died on August 2, 2013 at the age of 76 after a long illness.  He was a giant with empathy for the black people society sought to make small. His work ethic and purposefulness was awe-inspiring and his courage legendary and contagious.  He was a serious man who changed the air in the room. He was special, good and different. We at Rodney and Etter are grateful to have known him and to have had a small role in the historic case of Chisom v. Edwards. The people of Louisiana are forever in his debt.

University of North Carolina School of Law Dean Jack Boger recounts Chambers’ remarkable and inspiring life, portions of which are reprinted here:

Julius was born in 1936 in Mount Gilead, North Carolina, a small, rural community east of Charlotte. His father was an automobile mechanic, and Julius learned about racial discrimination early.  His desire to become a lawyer addressing issues of discrimination deepened when, as a teenager, he remembered a white customer refusing to pay a bill for services rendered by his father, and no white lawyer in Montgomery County or the surrounding area agreeing to accept his father’s case. Julius graduated from high school in May 1954, the very month the United States Supreme Court announced its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. An excellent student, he entered North Carolina Central University (then North Carolina College) in the fall of that year, where he studied history and became President of the Student Government in his senior year. He received his BA degree summa cum laude, and then earned an MA degree in history from the University of Michigan. In 1959 he was admitted to the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which had only recently begun admitting African‑American students under the pressure of litigation. A brilliant and determined law student, Chambers was elected Editor‑in‑Chief of the North Carolina Law Review in his third year, becoming the first African‑American to hold this title at any historically white law school in the South. He graduated in 1962, ranking first in his class of 100 students. Thereafter, he studied and taught at Columbia University Law School while earning an LL.M. degree.

In 1963, Mr. Chambers was tapped as the first intern in a new program of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), designed to provide promising African-American law graduates with 12 months of training in civil rights litigation before sending them home to open civil rights law practices in areas of need. . .

In June 1964, Chambers opened his law practice in a cold‑water walkup on East Trade Street in Charlotte. This one-person law practice eventually became the first integrated law firm in North Carolina history. . .  In scores of school desegregation, employment discrimination, voting rights, health care litigation and related matters, Julius Chambers and his partners challenged the regime of Jim Crow segregation and white supremacy that had prevailed in North Carolina and the South for nearly 100 years following the short-lived experiment in racial equality during Reconstruction.  

Chambers searches through his firebombed office in Charlotte, NC in February of 1971.

Chambers searches through his firebombed office in Charlotte, NC in February of 1971.

These legal challenges met with fierce resistance in some quarters. Julius’s office was firebombed; his home was attacked; his automobile was burned up in a church parking lot while he was inside at a community meeting with clients. Yet he persisted against all efforts to intimidate or deter him, eventually arguing and winning landmark Supreme Court rulings in such cases as Swann v. Charlotte‑Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), (the famous school busing decision), Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) and Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody (1974) (two of the Supreme Court’s most significant cases interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, governing employment discrimination). . .

In 1984, Chambers was invited to become Director‑Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City. He was the third Director-Counsel of LDF, following Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg. . . In 1986 he had argued and won a unanimous decision in a key Voting Rights Act case, Thornberg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986).

In 1993, at the invitation of then-President of the University of North Carolina system C.D. Spangler, Julius Chambers returned to North Carolina to become Chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University. . .  In 1995 he was one of three lawyers who argued Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 (1996) before the Supreme Court, another landmark redistricting case defending the creation of Congressional districts under the Voting Rights Act. . .  

Julius retired from his position as Chancellor of North Carolina Central University on June 30, 2001 and reentered private law practice with the firm he started in 1967. That same year, he accepted the invitation of then-Dean of UNC Law, Gene Nichol, to become the inaugural director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights. . .  When he announced his retirement as Center director in 2010, he was honored at a festive celebration at the Carolina Inn, where featured speakers included Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, then-Governor Beverly Perdue of North Carolina, and President Barack Obama, who offered a video tribute to Julius Chambers’ life and work. . .

To the end, Julius remained the thoroughly decent, devoted, modest but relentlessly principled champion of those who most desperately needed his services – African American families, communities, and institutions, poor people of every background and heritage, women who had been oppressed by social constraints. . .  They don’t make lawyers, or human beings, any finer than the Mount Gilead native this State and nation lost to death this evening.

Jack Boger

 Julius Chambers participated in writing legal briefs in the case Chisom v. Roemer, 501 U.S. 380 (1991), which desegregated the Louisiana Supreme Court.  Chisom was filed after years of proposed legislation failed to reform judicial districts that effectively, and often intentionally, diluted the voting strength of Louisiana’s large African-American communities.  Due to the courage of plaintiffs, Ron Chisom, Marc H. Morial and others, aggressive pursuit of litigation under the Voting Rights Act by attorneys William Quigley, Roy J. Rodney, Jr., Ron Wilson, Lani Guinier, Pamela Karlan, the law firm of McGlinchey Stafford and many others, as well as the strong support of organizations including the Legal Defense Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Louis A. Martinet Society, Louisiana now enjoys the nation’s largest population of African-American judges.