NCCU community remembers Julius Chambers
Nov. 06, 2013 @ 09:57 PM

Mattie Giles describes her brother-in-law as not only an influential civil rights leader and force to be reckoned with in North Carolina education, but as a true family man.

More than three months after civil rights lawyer and former N.C. Central University chancellor Julius L. Chambers passed away at 76 years old, friends and family shared stories about Chambers inviting the least represented to the table to share ideas. His dry sense of humor. His stint as a football quarterback.

“We will go to our graves knowing he loved us tremendously,” Giles said.

About 175 people filled B.N. Duke Auditorium on NCCU campus Wednesday evening to talk not only about the legacy, but also the man.

Chambers died Aug. 2, but his impact on the state and N.C. Central remains. As a man who grew up in Mt. Gilead, east of Charlotte, at a time when segregation reigned, he left his mark on the state through his groundbreaking advancements in education and law.

Chambers enrolled at N.C. College as an undergraduate, now known as N.C. Central University, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1958, and later went on to attend the UNC School of Law shortly after it began admitting black students.

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.

Attorney Geraldine Sumter joined Chambers’ law firm in Charlotte in 1982.

“He often said, ‘Geraldine, the people you are going to represent are different than many other people,’” Sumter said. They “don’t have political sophistication, don’t have the wherewithal by themselves to stand up, but have the courage and the tenacity to move forward. That inspired him, humbled him and you knew it all the time.”

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. and Albermarle Paper Co. v. Moody, two cases involving employment discrimination.

Those cases didn’t come without retaliation. He faced car bombings and explosions that damaged his home and law office.

“Chambers was that person who was cool in the midst of the fire,” said NCCU law professor Irving Joyner.

Chambers would go on to serve as a law professor at the UNC Chapel Hill and as director of the school’s Center for Civil Rights.

Gene Nichol was dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law who recruited Chambers to start the Center for Civil Rights on campus.

Nichol said he’s met great lawyers, famed bigwigs of law firms, accomplished CEOs and U.S. senators and Supreme Court justices.

“Not one of them matches in greatness of the soft-spoken, brilliant and astonishingly brave lawyer,” Nichol said.

Chambers served as NCCU’s chancellor from 1993 to 2001, the first alumnus to assume that role.

He raised academic standards for incoming students and student-athletes, established a $50-million fundraising campaign and started the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute, which opened in 1999 and serves as a hub for collaborative research with Research Triangle Park firms.

“He was a Renaissance man,” said NCCU Chancellor Debra Saunders-White. “A man who was a civil rights icon. But for this great institution, he was an extraordinary leader, a member of the academy who gave us so very much and really who set the stage for who we are today.”

Bernice Johnson, NCCU interim provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs, was faculty senate chair for the Arts and Sciences department when Chambers was chancellor. She said he conducted every meeting “like he was in the court of law,” would create strands of paperclips while listening intently, and transformed the relationships within the university.

“He was the one that came in and made it very clear from the onset that there were no class divisions within this institution,” Johnson said. “... He knew everything that I said and thought about wanting to say. He was just that perceptive and brilliant.”

Durham Mayor Bill Bell said he issued a proclamation upon hearing of Chambers’ death and that the man was always “destined for great things.”

“It’s people like your dad that make Durham a better place for all of us who call the city home,” said Bell, addressing Derrick and Judy, Chambers’ children, in the audience.

“This man could have been at the top of the world and could have demanded a lot, but he was just a calm, ordinary man to me,” Derrick Chambers said.