Julius Chambers, former NCCU chancellor, dies

Aug. 03, 2013 @ 04:34 PM

Influential civil rights lawyer and former N.C. Central University chancellor Julius LeVonne Chambers died Friday afternoon at the age of 76.

Chambers was known for taking on segregation issues in North Carolina schools and fighting for higher admittance rates of black students in predominantly white universities.

He also argued and won prominent civil rights cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chambers was born in Mt. Gilead, east of Charlotte, at a time when black students couldn’t attend school with white children. Chambers’ father, an auto mechanic, tried to send him to an integrated school, but one of his father’s white clients refused to pay the money needed to carry out that dream.

“My father needed the money to send me to boarding school, and no one would represent him,” Chambers had said. “I realized then that black folk needed a legal voice to help protect their rights and interests. And I decided to go to law school and do just that.”

When the Brown v. Board of Education decision was announced regarding desegregation in schools, Chambers was studying in a segregated high school in Montgomery County.

He enrolled the same year as an undergraduate at N.C. College, now known as N.C. Central University, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1958.

He could not attend UNC Chapel Hill in the mid-1950s because of race, but after earning his master’s degree in history at the University of Michigan, Chambers attended the UNC School of Law on a fellowship shortly after it began admitting black students. He graduated the first out of his class of 100 in 1962. Chambers became the first black editor-in-chief of the Law Review.

Chambers then attended Columbia University in New York and received his master’s degree in law.

Chambers opened his own law practice in Charlotte, which would become the first integrated law firm in North Carolina, and also served as director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in which he supervised four staff attorneys and about 400 cooperating attorneys around the country.

Chambers became the third person to hold the job as head of the NAACP fund, a position pioneered by Thurgood Marshall, who helped the NAACP achieve one of its greatest legal victories, Brown v. Board.

Chambers took on high-profile U.S. Supreme Court cases, to include Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the case that forced desegregation of the school system, and Griggs v. Duke Power Co. as well as Albermarle Paper Co. v. Moody, two cases involving employment discrimination.

The high-profile cases didn’t come without retaliation. In November 1965, when he sued the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, his car was bombed for the second time that year. Explosions also tied to his lawsuits in the late 1960s and early 1970s damaged his home and law office.

Despite these threats, Chambers also took on the UNC system; his Charlotte law firm in 1970 filed suit on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that claimed the federal government violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by funding several Southern university systems, including North Carolina’s, that the organization said were poorly integrated.

The stalemate ended years later when UNC system officials agreed to set goals to raise black enrollment at predominantly white schools and white enrollment at historically black schools. Officials also pledged to spend more money on instruction and professors’ salaries in black schools.

He would go on to serve as a law professor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Law and as director of the school’s Center for Civil Rights later in his career.

The Center for Civil Rights, said UNC School of Law Dean Jack Boger, was born from Chambers’ original idea to have a center where young law students could receive training and learn about racial and economic injustices.

Chambers realized that his civil rights work couldn’t be completed in a lifetime, and new generations of lawyers had to take on that responsibility, Boger said.

He said he first heard of Chambers and his civil rights cases when he was a UNC law student in the early 1970s. He met Chambers in person for the first time while working at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, when Chambers became the director-counsel and fought for desegregation and nondiscrimination in hospitals, work environments and schools.

“I was certainly aware of all that great work and aware as well of the courage he showed,” Boger said. “They tried to fight him away, they firebombed his home, they burned his office down. … None of that deterred him or made him angry or vindictive. He was a remarkably decent and determined person to bring about the kind of racial reconciliation, racial integration, that he so believed in.”

Chambers began his path toward the NCCU chancellor seat in the early ‘90s when he met with then-UNC system President C.D. Spangler for lunch in New York. Chambers had dropped his spoon in his soup at the thought of being considered for the position.

“Are you serious?” Chambers had asked Spangler.

“Never more in my life,” Spangler responded.

He became NCCU’s chancellor in 1993, making him the first alumnus to serve in the top seat.

Before he arrived, the school was rife with financial problems that surfaced involving the athletic and public administration departments, and there had been no new campus construction for about a decade.

He also raised academic standards for incoming students and student-athletes, established a $50-million fundraising campaign, introduced new degree programs, and made one of his campus dreams a reality: The Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute, which opened March of 1999 and serves as a hub for collaborate research with Research Triangle Park firms.

Irving Joyner, who has worked at NCCU for 32 years and currently serves as a professor in the School of Law, said Chambers’ memory and impact on the university will be everlasting.

“He brought to it a vision of doing more with less and doing better with everything that we had,” Joyner said.

He met Chambers 40 years ago when Chambers was practicing law in Charlotte and becoming the target of several assassination attempts. They were working together on the Wilmington Ten case, in which nine African American men and one white woman were wrongfully accused of arson and conspiracy. Joyner said he’s always known Chambers for his passion and dedication to civil rights.

“He was a leader in the effort to organize black lawyers in North Carolina and to push the bar to accept and better accommodate the interest of African-American lawyers and African-American communities,” he said.

Andre’ D. Vann, coordinator of NCCU’s university archives, graduated from the university during Chambers’ first year as chancellor. He became a close friend of the family.

“It was just an honor and a privilege,” Vann said. “He was a dedicated alumnus who was urged to come back to help his institution and to come back to the South and make it a little bit better. That’s something that I really admired about him, to put his other career goals aside to take on a new path.”

Chambers stepped down as NCCU chancellor in June of 2001. At the time he was recovering from a battle with prostate cancer and he wanted to rejoin his Charlotte law firm.

“Chancellor Chambers was a trailblazer with a long and distinguished career as a revered educator, attorney and author,” said NCCU Chancellor Debra Saunders-White in a university statement Saturday. “His rich legacy will live on forever at this alma mater through the countless initiatives that began during his tenure and continue to thrive today.”  

In a 1997 campus speech, Chambers talked to students about his definition of civil rights.

“Many years ago, we defined it as the rights of African Americans to get equal opportunities in life,” Chambers had said. “Now we have to broaden that focus and talk about the rights of all people, regardless of race, creed, economic condition or sexual preference.”

He is survived by his two children, Derrick and Judy, and three grandchildren. Chambers’ late wife, Vivian, died at the age of 79 in June of last year.