October 6, 1936 – Birth of Civil Rights Leader & Legal Educator Julius Chambers

Julius Chambers was born on this day in history in rural North Carolina. After seeing the injustice to which his father was subject from the area white people, after which they found no white lawyer would help them, Chambers said he resolved to pursue a career that would help end segregation and discrimination. He graduated summa cum laude from North Carolina Central University, obtained a master’s degree in history from the University of Michigan, and in 1959, he became one of only a few African Americans admitted to the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He became first African American editor-in-chief of the law review and graduated first in his class. Nevertheless, he could not attend the law school’s annual banquet, which was held at a segregated country club.

In 1964, he earned his LL.M. from Columbia University Law School. During this period, from 1963–1964, Chambers also served as the first intern for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in New York, having been selected by LDF’s Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall.

In June 1964, Chambers began a solo law practice in Charlotte, North Carolina. It grew into the first integrated firm in North Carolina history. As the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights reports:

Along with partners James E. Ferguson II and Adam Stein, the firm won numerous groundbreaking civil rights victories in the U.S. Supreme Court, including Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, in which the Court authorized the use of busing to achieve school integration; Griggs v. Duke Power and Albemarle Paper Co. v Moody, which expanded the law of employment discrimination to prohibit disparate racial impacts of racially neutral policies; and Thornburg v. Gingles, which determined that it is not necessary to prove intentional discrimination in voting rights cases.”

Julius Chambers, in 1970, as he received word of McMillan’s ruling on Swann. Photo is from the Charlotte Observer Photograph Collection

Chambers and his firm were not left unmolested by white supremacists. In January, 1965, Chambers’s car was destroyed by a bomb. In November, 1965, Chambers’s home was bombed along with the homes of three other African-American leaders in the area. In February 1971, Chambers’s downtown Charlotte law office was firebombed.

As the New York Times noted:

Mr. Chambers’s . . . response was defiant; he said he would ‘keep fighting.’ It was also measured. ‘We must accept this type of practice,’ he said, ‘from those less in control of their faculties.’”

In 1984, Chambers left his Charlotte firm to re-join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York City. He succeeded Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg as president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Under Chambers’ leadership, the LDF litigated cases in the areas of education, voting rights, capital punishment, employment, housing and prisons. During this period, the LDF was perhaps best known for its work in defense of affirmative action programs of the 1970s and 1980s.

Julius L. Chambers

In 1993, Chambers left New York (and his position with the LDF) to return to North Carolina in order to become the chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University, serving in that position until 2001.

Chambers also served as lecturer or adjunct professor at a number of law schools, including Harvard Law, University of Virginia Law School, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Columbia University Law School, and University of Michigan Law School. He also served as the Charles Hamilton Houston Distinguished Professor of Law at North Carolina Central University.

In his last years, Chamber was of counsel with Ferguson Stein Chambers Gresham & Sumter PA in Charlotte, while also serving as a clinical professor of law and director of the Center for Civil Rights at UNC School of Law.

Chambers led the UNC Center until retiring in 2010. He passed away at age 76 in 2013.

The Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights is a non-profit named in his honor dedicated to providing low-wealth North Carolina communities with sound legal representation in their efforts to dismantle structural racism.

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