Julius Chambers ’62, civil rights leader, educator and founding director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, died Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, after a decline in health over the past several months.
“It is with great sadness that I share the news that Julius LeVonne Chambers, one of the greatest American civil rights lawyers of the 20th century, died late this afternoon,” said UNC School of Law John Charles “Jack” Boger ’74 in a message to law school faculty and staff Friday night. “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.”
Chambers was born in 1936 in Mount Gilead, N.C., a small, rural community east of Charlotte. Chambers received his BA degree summa cum laude, from North Carolina Central University (then North Carolina College) and 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. 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, 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. In June 1964, Chambers moved to Charlotte to open a law practice that would eventually became the first integrated law firm in North Carolina history. In its first decade, this law firm did more to influence evolving federal civil rights law than any other private law practice in the United States. Chambers and his founding partners, James E. Ferguson II and Adam Stein, worked with lawyers at LDF to litigate a vast range of civil rights cases that changed the face of the nation.
Chambers and his partners were involved in scores of legal challenges related to school desegregation, employment discrimination, voting rights, health care litigation and related matters. These legal challenges met with fierce resistance in some quarters, resulting in Chambers’ office being firebombed; his home attacked; and his automobile set on fire. Chambers is known for his victories in such high profile cases as the famous Charlotte busing decision Swann v. Charlotte‑Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), and 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 became Director‑Counsel of the LDF. He was the third LDF director, following Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg. In 1993, Chambers returned to North Carolina to become Chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University. Under his leadership, the University launched a $50 million capital fundraising campaign and established its first 10 endowed chairs, including the one-million dollar Charles Hamilton Houston Chair at the School of Law. Chambers 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 School of Law, Gene Nichol, to become the inaugural director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights. Chambers conceived of a University-based Center that would carry out three missions simultaneously: to train a new generation of law graduates who would be committed to civil rights advocacy in the 21st century; to provide a place where sophisticated social scientific and other research would be commissioned, examined, and shaped to address issues of racial and economic injustice and inequality; and to provide strategic legal counsel and services to lower-income and non-white communities in North Carolina and the Southeast. He built a civil rights “law firm” at UNC School of Law that engaged in advocacy at state, regional and national levels.
During his nearly 10 years as director, Chamber received dozens of national and state awards for his lifetime of service. When he announced his retirement as Center director in 2010, he was honored at a 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 Chambers’ life and work.
-August 3, 2013