Life of Charlotte civil rights icon Julius Chambers featured in new documentary | WFAE 90.7
Iconic civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers is well known in North Carolina, especially in Charlotte. Judicial victory for Chambers in the United States Supreme Court in Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board opened the door for students to be bussed to desegregate public schools.
But he’s not well known in the country, even though Chambers has filed numerous discrimination lawsuits, clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and headed the National Legal Defense Fund. of the NAACP. He was the subject of a documentary aired on Bounce TV Monday.
Julius Chambers (recording): Minorities were simply disadvantaged and had no way to challenge those disadvantages.
WBTV journalist Steve Crump produced the film “Julius Chambers: A Life of Service, Courage and Conviction”. It looks at his civil rights work, his legal successes, and also Chambers’ early years growing up in the mid-1930s in rural North Carolina.
Steve Crump: Mount Gilead is in Montgomery County, about an hour and 15 minutes, an hour and 20 minutes from Charlotte. And like so many other communities here in North Carolina, it was part of the textile mill, and Julius Chambers – not only did he grow up during the Great Depression, but he also came at a time when the wrath of Jim Crow was the rule of law.
Gwendolyn Glenn: Tell me about his parents. Her mother was valedictorian in her class. His father only had a seventh grade education.
Burst: His father owned an auto repair business. So when you look at that, consider that with his mother’s upbringing, they were on a very different path in many ways as far as demonstrating the possible. And as a result of that, he took courses not only in business, but also in life lessons that took him to high school, college, and even law school.
Glen: His dad’s business – Blacks and whites came to him because he was such a good mechanic, and there was this white customer who racked up about $2,000 in repairs.
Burst: It was a turning point in his life, when a white client jumped in after he had to, as you mentioned, $2,000 in repairs and at a very young age Julius Chambers decided that was going to be the catalyst in terms of, I’m guessing, having an epiphany from the point of view where “I have to do something about it. I have to change social conditions”, and that’s what drove him to pursue a career in law – more or less to change the social narrative based on the fight for what is right. It affected him in such a way that it was one of those things where it kind of led his own personal crusade to find justice.
Glen: But this path has not been easy because when you look at a man like him and everything he has achieved, it started in these schools. I don’t know if it was Rosenwald, but they were schools that only had maybe four to six classrooms, very few supplies.
Burst: What’s interesting: He graduated from high school in 1954 – the same year that Brown v. Board was decided by the Supreme Court. What led to the Brown decision were the schools that were inadequate. They didn’t necessarily have the same resources as most white schools. So when you look at it in terms of a playing field that’s not necessarily even, here’s a person who succeeded despite.
(NOTE: You can watch the premiere of “Julius Chambers: A Life of Service, Courage and Conviction” above, courtesy of the Harvey B. Gantt Center. The film’s intro begins at 1:07 p.m., so you’ll want to start there. )
Glen: Yes. And tell us about his university life.
Burst: His college life takes off like a rocket, and at North Carolina Central he is the student body president, a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, he is involved in yearbook staff, a number of support organizations to students. And because of how he excelled as an undergraduate, it pretty much sets the table for him, not only at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) Law School, but also when you look at his college credentials. He also works at Columbia in New York.
Glen: And he was #1 in his law class, right?
Burst: Yeah, he was #1 in his class, but he had a pretty good supporting cast. And when I say, you know, the great Henry Frye was enrolled in law school with him, who was the first African American to be elected to the North Carolina Legislature in the 20th century and eventually became Chief Justice of North Carolina. Supreme Court. So he was in very, very good company. In 1962, he became editor of the very prestigious law journal of the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill).
Glen: And you mentioned Frye, who talks about him in your documentary.
Henry Frye (recording): Julius Chambers was probably the smartest person I’ve ever known. The guy could remember that. You could tell him something today and tomorrow, next year – I mean, he would remember it. He could quote history and quote cases. I mean, he was just a smart guy. So I tried to learn from him. Now he claims he tried to learn from me. It was his humility.
Burst: They eventually reunited in 1967, where they were the first two men of color — the first two African Americans — to join the North Carolina Bar Association. The interesting thing about Julius Chambers, you know, from the perspective of his work on the Supreme Court of the United States, he’s eight for eight. He has never lost a case in the Supreme Court.
Glen: Yes. And of course, one of those eight cases that you said you won in the United States Supreme Court was the Swann case, in terms of the desegregation of the Charlotte schools
Burst: More than 50 years ago, in 1971. It was the Swann judgment. I’m sure many parents in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District will ask, “Well wait a minute, why do our kids have to take the bus to school?” Or, “What’s the deal, you know, in terms of the interaction of racial equity imbalance?” Well, it was the Swann case and the work of Julius Chambers that set so much in motion when it comes to school integration that we see here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Glen: And he paid for it with his life being threatened by all the work he was doing. His office was bombed, his house was bombed. Correct?
Burst: You go back to 1965 on a Sunday evening in November. His home, along with three other homes of civil rights activists in that community, ended up receiving dynamite. No one has ever been arrested. The case is still open by the FBI. That same year, he gave a speech to the NAACP in New Bern, North Carolina. His car exploded. Three Klan members have been convicted in this case. And fast forward, a few years later, he opened the very first integrated law firm here in the Charlotte area, which involved Adam Stein, the father of Attorney General (of North Carolina), Josh Stein. And the office is set on fire.
Julius Chambers (recording): Federal and state officials who supported what the perpetrators were doing, and they would not seriously investigate and try to identify who did it.
Burst: This case is still an open case. To his credit, even if you never heard any bitterness. He took it in stride, and maybe those kinds of moments not only added to his character, but also boosted the credibility of his work.