|Soft-spoken Chambers blazed civil rights trail|
|Published Friday, September 5, 2008|
“If you sit down and talk with people, you can accomplish much more than if you start off yelling and screaming,” says Julius Chambers, a civil rights lawyer whose cases have changed the way Americans lead their lives.
“I’ve seen it work in a lot of situations,” he adds.
Founder of the Charlotte law firm that bears his name, Chambers used his quiet, reasoned approach in arguing – by his count – eight cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He won them all.
The Charlotte Post Foundation will honor Chambers with its “Luminary - Lifetime Achievement” award at a Sept. 20 banquet at the Westin Hotel.
Among Chambers’ Supreme Court cases is 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.
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. I thought we were going to get the majority of the judges,” he adds. “Whether we would get a unanimous court was another question. Fortunately, we did.”
The ruling came in 1971, and it ultimately produced the busing for school integration that made Charlotte a model for the country.
Now living in Burke, Va., Darius Swann was a Presbyterian minister who moved to Charlotte from missionary work in India to teach at Johnson C. Smith University. He and his wife thought integration had taken hold in Charlotte. 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.”
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 much more skeptical about winning Moody’s case because it involved challenges to job-competence testing as well as to a seniority system for advancement. But he prevailed.
In 1995, Chambers argued a landmark redistricting case before the Supreme Court. The justices affirmed two North Carolina 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 law firm from 1971 until 1992 when he was elected to Congress from the newly created 12th District.
Watt points to Griggs v. Duke Power, another significant 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, and adds it is not an overstatement that Chambers’ victories changed life in America.
Chambers became a civil rights attorney because of an injustice suffered by his father, who owned a Mount Gilead garage. He couldn’t find an attorney to help collect a $2,000 repair bill on a truck he fixed for a white man who refused to pay.
Jack Greenberg, professor at law at Columbia University, has known Chambers since the 1960s at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He remains impressed with Chambers’ courage. In the ‘60s, Chambers’ car was burned; so was his home.
Elaine Jones, retired from the Legal Defense Fund where she followed Chambers as executive director, knows he continued a civil rights meeting after being interrupted to inspect his bombed car. It was at a church in New Bern.
“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.”
Was he ever afraid? “Afraid of what?” he 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.”
Of his school desegregation cases, Chambers muses: “I was elated that we were beginning to convince people that integration was the way things ought to be. To me, that carried over from schools to jobs to housing.”
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