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Civil rights attorney, former NCCU chancellor Julius Chambers dies

Posted August 3, 2013
Updated August 8, 2013

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— Julius Chambers, a former chancellor at North Carolina Central University and Charlotte attorney whose practice was in the forefront of the civil rights movement in North Carolina, has died, his law firm said Saturday. He was 76.

A statement issued by his law firm, Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, said Chambers died Friday after months of declining health. A specific cause of death wasn't given.

"Mr. Chambers was not the first lawyer of color to try to address the issues of equality," firm partner Geraldine Sumter said Saturday. "The thing that Mr. Chambers brought to that struggle was a very focused, determined attitude that things were going to change."

Chambers, served from 1993 to 2001 as NCCU's chancellor, the first alumnus to serve in the position.

"Chancellor Chambers was a trailblazer with a long and distinguished career as a revered educator, attorney and author," NCCU Chancellor Debra Saunders-White said in a statement. "His rich legacy will live on forever at this alma mater through the countless initiatives that began during his tenure and continue to thrive today."

Born and raised in Mount Gilead, Chambers graduated from North Carolina College at Durham in 1958. A year later, he received a master's degree from the University of Michigan. After earning a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was admitted to the North Carolina Bar in 1962.

Chambers went on to establish the country's first integrated law firm in Charlotte. He and his partners won cases that shaped civil rights law, including Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education regarding school busing.

The 1971 ruling in the case mandated crosstown busing and highlighted the power of federal courts to intervene when local public school systems hedged en route to full integration. The case came as then-Gov. Bob Scott had just taken office. Although Chambers won the case, Scott had already pledged that he wouldn't allow state money to be spent for busing.

From 1984 to 1993, he served as director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The Charlotte Observer reports that Chambers took eight cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won them all.

Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, said in a statement Sunday that Chambers knew no fear and fought his entire life against segregation, deprivation and division.

"He never took one step backwards, always marching forward, together, directly into the ugly ignorance and violence against him by white racist vigilantes who torched his car, his law office, his father's business in Mt. Gilead and dynamited his law office," Barber said.

"We can learn much from his low-key but militant approach to the duty of our generation – to complete the work of dismantling the structural and psychological racism that grips our society," Barber added.

Rep. Mel Watt, who represents North Carolina's 12th Congressional District, released a statement Saturday saying the community has "lost a giant." Watt was nominated by President Barack Obama in May to be the next head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

"The history of our state will record that Julius Chambers did more to advance us toward the constitutional aspiration of 'justice and equality for all' than anyone else in North Carolina," Watt said. "I can say without any doubt that I would not be who and where I am today without his mentoring, generosity and friendship. Our city and state would be a far different place had we not been beneficiaries of his life and ideals."

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper also released a statement Saturday, saying "Julius Chambers was a nationally recognized giant in the fight for people's civil rights. He was a friend who set a courageous example of doing what is right regardless of the cost."

On Sunday, Gov. Pat McCrory and Sen. Kay Hagan also honored Chambers' legacy.

"Julius Chambers was not only a pioneer in civil rights, he was a giant in law and education," McCrory said. "North Carolina and our nation are better places because of his life's work.

"His remarkable career will have a lasting impact on our state – from his successful effort to integrate Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools to the young lawyers he mentored in his private practice to the students who learned they could change the world under his leadership and N.C. Central University," Hagan said in a statement. "Julius Chambers faced adversity throughout his life, but he never let that deter him from his work to promote justice and equality."

On NCCU's campus, Chambers' legacy is honored by the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute. During his administration, the university launched a $50 million capital fundraising campaign.

Chambers' wife Vivian passed away last June, and he is survived by two children and three grandchildren, the school said. Funeral arrangements have not been finalized.

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  • Krimson Aug 5, 2013

    Thank you for your years of service. God Bless!