A great and valuable legacy in peril in Chapel Hill

Julius Chambers during his time as NCCU chancellor.
Julius Chambers during his time as NCCU chancellor. File News and Observer photo

Out of the soil of Montgomery County, in the midst of the Great Depression came a giant among men. Born on Oct. 6, 1936, Julius L. Chambers came from hardworking, God-fearing roots.

I met him for the first time on my second day of law school. He was a third-year law student. I was from neighboring Stanly County, born one year almost to the day after him. I looked up to him even then, as everyone knew he was a man on a mission.

He graduated from high school the month the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision. He graduated from N.C. Central summa cum laude in 1958. He was the first African-American editor-in-chief of the law review. He was the first African-American member of the Golden Fleece, the highest honor society at UNC. He finished first in his law school class. I was surprised by his quiet and modest presence.

However, I quickly learned that his outward appearance belied a raging fire in his belly. From the moment his father’s car repair business was targeted by a segregationist refusing to pay his bill, Chambers realized that he and hundreds of others like him did not have the means to hire legal counsel to assist them. He had experienced racial discrimination and was determined to do something about it. From that experience, Chambers resolved to fight discrimination in all its ugly forms.

He went on from Chapel Hill to Columbia and then was chosen by Thurgood Marshall as the first intern for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. We now can see how straight and true his path was.

From the NAACP he returned to the Tar Heel State and opened a law firm in Charlotte the same year Harold Tharrington and I started ours in Raleigh. His partners were Adam Stein and James (Fergie) Ferguson. Their work is legendary – Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education and many other civil rights and employment discrimination cases. But, it was dangerous. His home and offices were firebombed. While tensions ran high, Chambers remained calm, determined and watchful.

He returned to another battlefront, in higher education, as chancellor of NCCU. And, subsequently, he was adjunct professor at many of this country’s best law schools. In his last years, while of counsel at Ferguson, Stein, Chambers, Gresham and Sumter, he served as clinical professor and founder of the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

Chambers was on a journey of enlightenment and inclusiveness. This has also been North Carolina’s journey. His life was a “pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.” It is a compass point.

That’s why it saddens me to see the UNC Board of Governors cripple his beloved center by removing the very tool he spent his life working to build – a center that provides representation for those in North Carolina who have no means to hire counsel. Our system of justice still does not reach everyone. It is unavailable to many people. Our center helps to represent these people.

In the marketplace of ideas, there is room for all points of view. Our law schools have banking centers, domestic violence centers, small business centers, bankruptcy centers. These all fall into the same category. We should give this center the freedom to do what it was established to do.

There are many North Carolinians who have left us compass points, but I know of no others who left us a more important one. Julius Chambers is gone now and his chief legacy is this center.

Chambers makes me proud to be a North Carolinian. We look for his guidance even now. He inspires each of us to be a “pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.“ He was born of our soil. His journey is our journey. It is a beacon for us – a fine example of what a determined student of law can do.

The UNC Center for Civil Rights is a monument to him and to thousands of others who have suffered discrimination, and we need to fight to save it. It is a beautiful symbol of North Carolina. It is a reminder that we can be better.

Raleigh attorney Wade M. Smith is a 1963 graduate of the UNC School of Law.