Julius L. Chambers, the pioneering civil rights lawyer who also led North Carolina Central University as chancellor for eight transformative years, died Friday, Aug. 2, in Charlotte at the age of 76.
“Our community and our nation have benefited tremendously from Mr. Chambers’ tireless efforts to ensure that all people are treated equally,” said attorney James Ferguson of the Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, P.A. the Charlotte law firm that Chambers founded in 1964. “He believed that regardless of one’s position, status, race, creed, color, religion or gender, everyone has an obligation to ensure equality for all.”
As chancellor at NCCU from 1993 to 2001, Chambers laid the foundation for a significant expansion of the university’s scope and mission. When he took office, NCCU was primarily a teaching institution with an emphasis on the liberal arts. When he retired to return to his law practice, the university was emerging as a mid-sized institution with a growing research presence, notably in the biomedical sciences.
He worked to raise the endowment from $1 million to more than $25 million. He raised academic standards and set priorities for allocating NCCU’s share of the $3.1 billion UNC system bond issue approved by voters in 2000 that provided the major capital improvements at all state university campuses.
He was the first — and so far, only — NCCU graduate to lead the university. In 2008, he was honored with the title of chancellor emeritus.
“Chancellor Chambers was a champion of civil rights and higher education,” said Dr. Bernice Duffy Johnson, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. Johnson, who joined the faculty in 1979 and has served in a range of teaching and administrative positions under eight chancellors, added, “He was small in stature and he spoke softly, but he was probably the smartest person I have ever known. He was so visionary — he was able to look beyond where we were in 1993 and to lay the foundation to move into the 21st century.”
Beyond the NCCU campus, Chambers was far better known for his work as a tenacious civil rights crusader. He took eight cases to the Supreme Court, and won every one, including the landmark 1971 case that led to integration of the schools in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
Over the years, his enemies set fire to his law office and bombed his Charlotte home and his car. “The animosity toward him and his positions was heavy and real — you could feel it,” said C.D. Spangler, former UNC system president. “But he never let that change him personally. He didn’t hate the people who hated him.”
Julius LeVonne Chambers was born in Mount Gilead, N.C., a small town about 100 miles southwest of Durham, on Oct. 6, 1936. His father, William Chambers, owned a garage and general store. His mother, Matilda Bruton Chambers, helped out in the store and raised their four children, including Julius and older brother, Kenneth, a retired Charlotte obstetrician.
Julius Chambers often told the story about the day in 1949 his father told him that the $2,000 he’d saved to send him to school at Laurinburg Institute, was gone, thanks to a white customer whose 18-wheeler the elder Chambers had maintained and repaired for months. The man had refused to pay the bill and jeered as he drove off with the rig. William Chambers sought help from the few white lawyers in town, but they turned him down.
That was the day, Chambers said, that he decided study law.
Instead of Laurinburg Institute, he attended the all-black public high school in Troy, excelling in sports and academics. He then enrolled at North Carolina College at Durham, now N.C. Central, where he was a standout student and leader. He was president of the student body and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, and he graduated summa cum laude in 1958 with a degree in history. He attended University of Michigan on a fellowship and earned a master’s degree in history, then entered the UNC Law School in Chapel Hill, where, in 1962, he graduated first in his class of 100 and was the first African-American chosen editor of the North Carolina Law Review.
After graduation, Chambers, by then married to Vivian Giles of Kannapolis, was appointed as a teaching associate at Columbia University School of Law, where he also received a Master of Laws degree in 1963.
In 1964, he opened a law practice in Charlotte. In his first year, he took on 35 school desegregation cases and 20 suits charging discrimination in public accommodations. By 1972, the firm had 11 members, including five whites. It was North Carolina’s first integrated law firm.
By 1965, integration was proceeding slowly in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Although it had been 11 years since the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, only a few schools were integrated. Chambers sued the school board to force total desegregation.
Days after he filed the suit, his car was bombed during a speaking engagement in New Bern. As Chambers checked on the car, people in the audience poured into the street, asking, “What are we going to do?” his partner Geraldine Sumter recalled. “He said, ‘We’re going to go back inside and finish the meeting. There’s nothing we can do about that car.’ ”
The Charlotte case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, wound its way through the courts, culminating in the 1971 ruling that ordered cross-town busing to end segregation of local schools. It also highlighted the power of federal courts to intervene when public school systems dawdled on their way to integration.
It was one of many legal triumphs for Chambers. Others included two key employment discrimination decisions, also decided in his clients’ favor by the Supreme Court, Griggs v. Duke Power Co. and Moody v. Albemarle Paper Co.
In 1984, Chambers left the law firm to become the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a position previously held by Thurgood Marshall. Under his leadership, the fund became the first line of defense against the political assault on civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs that arose during the 1970s and 1980s.
Chambers served as adjunct professor at the University of Virginia Law School, 1975 to 1978; University of Pennsylvania, 1978 to 1986; Columbia University, 1984 to 1992; and the University of Michigan, 1985 to 1992.
In 1992, UNC President Spangler, a Charlotte businessman who had been a member of the school board in Charlotte when Chambers sued in 1965, recruited Chambers to be chancellor at NCCU.
During his eight years at the university, he oversaw a doubling of NCCU’s research funding and increased the number of endowed chairs from one to 14, including the $1 million Charles Hamilton Houston chair in the School of Law. He also persuaded the state legislature to fund a new building for the School of Education.
He played a vital role in establishing NCCU as a center for biomedical research. In a 2011 interview, Chambers recalled, “When we started, NCCU had no major grants or opportunities to get involved in science research — even though we were right here in the Research Triangle.”
Chambers set out to change that. He cultivated alliances and relationships with the major scientific research organizations in the region — not just UNC–Chapel Hill and Duke but also the pharmaceutical companies and other major corporations. At the same time, he pushed hard within the UNC System to bring to NCCU improved physical facilities and the resources to hire top researchers.
He also understood that NCCU was uniquely positioned to fill a research niche by focusing on health disparities, and specifically on issues involving African-Americans.
“All saw the need for NCCU to be involved,” Chambers said. “We knew we needed to study black people. The other institutions had very few black people involved — not as subjects and certainly not as researchers. We saw that we could develop as a major player.”
He found strong support from the faculty, the NCCU Board of Trustees, prospective research partners and, most important, from Spangler and the UNC Board of Governors. The most tangible early result was the construction of the building now called the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute (BBRI), which opened in 1999. Two other major science facilities followed during the next decade, the Mary M. Townes Science Building in 2005 and the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE) in 2008.
Chambers retired from NCCU on June 30, 2001, and reentered private practice with the firm he started, now known as Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, P.A. In 2002 Chambers became director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights in the University of North Carolina School of Law.
Throughout his career, he remained active in the affairs of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, as well as Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, North Carolina Chapter of the National Association of Guardsmen Inc. and the Prince Hall Masons. He was also a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society.
Chancellor Emeritus Chambers is survived by a daughter, Judy, and a son, Derrick, and three grandchildren. Vivian Chambers died in 2012, as did his mother, Matilda, at the age of 101.
In lieu of flowers, the Chambers family has requested that contributions be made to NCCU (Julius L. Chambers Endowed Scholarship), as well as two other organizations that were dear to Chancellor Emeritus Chambers. Gifts may be made online at: http://www.nccu.edu/donation/index.cfm?spec=jlc. Please indicate “Julius L. Chambers Endowed Scholarship” in the Designation Instructions. Contributions may also be mailed to the NCCU Foundation, P.O. Box 19363, Durham, NC 27707.