Sixties Charlotte struggled to remedy racial separation that permeated the South. Enlightened leaders were coming to grips with the push of African-Americans to realize constitutional rights in education and employment and voting.
In the black community, perhaps no one strived harder for change than Julius Chambers and the attorneys he assembled in his civil rights law practice. Started as a solo practice, Ferguson, Stein, Chambers, Gresham & Sumter, P.A., as it is known today, was the first integrated law firm in North Carolina history.
With fellow founding partners James E. Ferguson II and Adam Stein, along with lawyers from NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the firm successfully litigated a number of key cases before the Supreme Court of the United States that would help to shape evolving American civil rights laws, including the school busing decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), and two important Title VII employment discrimination cases, Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) and Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody (1975).
Growing up during the Jim Crow era in rural Montgomery County, Julius Chambers had seen firsthand the effects of discrimination in his father’s Mount Gilead garage when a white customer refused to pay a $2,000 repair bill on a truck and his father could not find a lawyer to file suit against him. Chambers has said that this experience made him resolved to pursue a career in law in order to help end segregation and racial discrimination.
So, after graduating from high school in 1954 (the same month as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling), he enrolled at North Carolina Central University. He was the president of the student body at NCCU and graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in history in 1958. He then earned an M.A. in history from the University of Michigan.
In 1959, Chambers entered law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he became the first African-American editor-in-chief of the law review and graduated first in his class in 1962. Chambers also became the first African-American to gain membership in the Order of the Golden Fleece, the university’s highest honorary society.
He went on to earn his LL.M. from Columbia University Law School, also while serving as the first intern for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in New York, having been selected by the organization’s director-counsel at the time, Thurgood Marshall.
In June 1964, Chambers returned to his home state and opened a law practice in a cold-water walk-up on East Trade Street in Charlotte. Chambers’ ambition was that it be a general practice law firm that would, among other things, provide legal services to the African-American community in a society that was mired in racial inequities and long-held prejudices.
Chambers got help from the LDF as well as The Field Foundation in the early years as he handled everything from criminal to personal injury cases. The revenue stream helped finance the civil rights efforts that were his reason for being.
“We used to pride ourselves in doing non-civil rights work and getting paid so we could do civil rights work where we didn’t get paid,” Chambers chuckles as he reminisces with long-time partner James Ferguson about the early days.
Ferguson summarizes the mission Chambers defined.
“It was to represent minorities who couldn’t get quality representation,” Ferguson says. “It was to try to bring about a society where people would be treated equal and have their rights respected by the government and everybody else. That remains the mission.”
Ferguson, 66, was fresh from Columbia University Law School in 1967 when he joined Chambers. The two had met a year earlier at the New York City offices of the LDF.
Chambers knew Ferguson also wanted to concentrate on civil rights, but didn’t understand why he planned to return to his hometown of Asheville. He invited Ferguson to spend an Easter weekend with him and wife Vivian. Before leaving Charlotte, Ferguson committed to join Chambers.
It wasn’t long before Chambers also added white lawyers Adam Stein and Jim Lanning, creating the state’s first integrated law practice.
Through his 43 years, Chambers, 72, has been known for his calm and quiet demeanor.
“If you sit down and talk with people, you can accomplish much more than if you start off yelling and screaming,” he says simply. “I’ve seen it work in a lot of situations.”
Chambers used his low-key, reasoned approach in arguing eight cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He won them all.
Among them was Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. The ruling that busing could be used to integrate the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools helped shape modern-day Charlotte.
Darius Swann was a Presbyterian minister who had moved to Charlotte from missionary work in India to teach at Johnson C. Smith University. He and his wife thought integration had taken hold. They learned differently when the school system wanted son James to attend first grade at an all-black school farther from his home than a white elementary.
“I think the first thing that struck us about Julius Chambers was that he was a very quiet person, not a lot of bombast,” Swann recalls. “But he is a tenacious person and very able.
We grew to have absolute confidence in his ability.”
Speaking in 1970 before the justices in the Swann case, Chambers admits he was excited, but he employed his typical soft-spoken demeanor.
“I knew the importance of what we were trying to establish,” he recalls. “If a judge would say something I thought was wrong, I’d just talk instead of yelling.” The favorable ruling came in 1971, and it ultimately produced the busing for school integration that made Charlotte a model.
Joe Moody of Roanoke Rapids presented Chambers an employment discrimination case in 1966 and Chambers got it to the Supreme Court in 1980.
“It was amazing,” says Moody, who watched Chambers argue his case against Albemarle Paper Company before the high court. “He was so smooth and soft-spoken. And he knew what he was talking about.”
Chambers remembers he was skeptical about winning because Moody was challenging job competence testing as well as a seniority system for advancement. But he prevailed.
In 1995, Chambers argued a landmark redistricting issue before the Supreme Court. The justices affirmed two N.C. congressional districts redrawn to ensure equitable minority representation. One of those seats is held by U.S. Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte, a member of the Chambers practice from 1971 until 1992 when he was elected to Congress from the newly created 12th District.
Watt points to Griggs v. Duke Power, another Supreme Court win for Chambers. The justices ruled in 1971 that it was unconstitutional to require an employment test that was not job-related. That allowed blacks to advance from menial employment into myriad positions previously not open to them.
“It changed the whole employment dynamic,” Watt says. It is not an overstatement, he adds, that Chambers’ victories changed life in America.
To honor the contributions of Chambers, The Charlotte Post Foundation gave him its Luminary–Lifetime Achievement award in September.
“Charlotte has Mr. Chambers’ imprints all over it,” said Gerald Johnson, publisher of The Charlotte Post. “He has touched the lives, both directly and indirectly, of so many of us that it is past time to say thank you.”
Jack Greenberg, professor at law at Columbia University, has known Chambers since the 1960s at the LDF. He remains impressed with Chambers’ courage. In the ’60s, the firm’s efforts were met several times with violence. Chambers’ car was burned; so was his home.
While Chambers was at a speaking engagement in January 1965 in New Bern, his car was destroyed by a bomb.
“I went outside and looked to see what had happened,” Chambers says. “They had put dynamite in my gas pipe. There was nothing one could do. We decided to continue with the meeting.”
In November 1965, in the midst of the first hearings of the Swann school busing case, Chambers’ home was bombed along with three other homes of African-American leaders: then North Carolina NAACP President Kelly Alexander, his brother Frederick Alexander (a Charlotte city councilman) and community activist Reginald Hawkins. Amazingly, no one was injured in these bombings. The bombings received a great deal of national television and newspaper coverage, including an article in the New York Times.
In February 1971, the firm’s offices in a Fourth Ward house were also firebombed.
Chambers believes he knows why. He was pushing to integrate Charlotte’s Shrine Bowl, a high-school football all-star game between the best white players in North Carolina versus their counterparts in South Carolina.
After the fire, landlords didn’t want to lease space to the firm, which ended up in a hotel on West Trade Street. That led Chambers to convince other black professionals to share the cost of erecting a multi-story building on urban redevelopment land, part of a huge tract in Second Ward where the African-American neighborhood of Brooklyn had been razed.
The group sold the building—now known as Bob Walton Plaza—to Mecklenburg County in 1995 and the Chambers practice moved to Kenilworth Avenue.
For his part, Ferguson argued cases such as the Wilmington 10 in which the defendants in a race-related grocery bombing were sentenced to a total of 282 years. Under intense pressure, Gov. Jim Hunt reduced the sentences. Later, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of
Appeals overturned the convictions.
He also handled the case of Daryl Hunt, an African-American from Winston-Salem wrongfully convicted of rape and murder of a young white woman. Hunt served more than 19 years before DNA evidence exonerated him.
Ferguson has remained with the firm since joining, even as Chambers left in 1984 to be the third director-counsel for the LDF, following Thurgood Marshall and Greenberg. In 1993, Chambers left New York to return to North Carolina as chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University. When he retired in 2001, he returned to the firm he founded.
Along with his legal work, Chambers serves as director of the Center for Civil Rights, a component of the University of North Carolina School of Law.
Today, Chambers and Ferguson say they continue the tradition of their practice.
“The area that demands most of our time, energy and resources is employment,” says Ferguson. “But we do police misconduct cases and we still have a school case or two. Virtually everything we do is classified as plaintiff’s attorney work, including the civil rights cases.”
Daily, the pair sees evidence of success. “One of our priorities was to integrate the schools,” Chambers says, “and you look and see some of the schools are integrated. We wanted to remove employment barriers. You can see some of the things that have changed.”
Yet they also recognize challenges. “We thought once we won the Swann case we wouldn’t have to worry about the kind of education children were getting,” Ferguson says.
“But look at what’s happened. Most in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are racially identifiable schools. It’s going to take something to straighten it out, or you’re going to have generations of children who are not realizing their educational potential.”
What’s in the future? Chambers and Ferguson are quick to point to their sharp young lawyers, but neither man is ready to retire.
“A lot of folks struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder are going to find their plight is worse because of the economic meltdown,” he says. “It’s going to be African-Americans, Hispanics, and poor folks in general. Somebody’s got to address it, and we hope to be a part of that.”
“We’ve been able to stay close to our original mission,” says Ferguson, “but that has not been without sacrifice.”
“Fergie’s right,” Chambers says. “In trying to recruit, you have to tell the candidate he or she isn’t going to make a million dollars.”
Through the turmoil, was either man ever afraid?
“It’s a lifetime commitment to make society a better place,” Ferguson says. “You can’t do this work and be scared.”
“Afraid of what?” Chambers answers, still quietly. “We wanted to encourage others to assert their rights. And you couldn’t do that being afraid. So we stepped out and did what we had to do. I think we made progress.”