CHARLOTTE — Though his name may not be as well-known as other civil-rights champions, the soft-spoken Julius Chambers fought passionately and tirelessly and got results. At his funeral service in Charlotte on Thursday, mourners remembered him, what his legacy meant, and how they could best carry on his work.
As speakers, friends and those he touched traced his amazing journey, they also cautioned that the fight for equality is a constant struggle. As legislators in the state he especially loved and served rush to enact rules rolling back progress in voting and education funding, his life is a history lesson North Carolina and the country could use right about now.
Chambers, who died last Friday at the age of 76, started life in the small town of Mount Gilead, N.C. As an attorney who graduated at the top of his class at University of North Carolina Law School at Chapel Hill in 1962 and was the first African-American chosen editor of the North Carolina Law Review, Chambers went on to argue eight cases before the Supreme Court and win them all.
One of them, the 1971 ruling in the Swann v. the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education case, mandated cross-town busing to end segregation of local schools, putting the fire under districts that had delayed full integration.
On Thursday, when he spoke to a crowd of several thousand at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Anthony Foxx remembered how that case, decided in the year he was born, affected his life. It meant “I would not go to a school with hand-me-down books,” said the former Charlotte mayor who is now U.S. Secretary of Transportation. “I consider myself a child of Julius Chambers,” he said. “Everything I’ve achieved can be traced back to the war that Julius Chamber waged against unfairness.” Chambers, he said, “wasn’t just a fighter for African Americans. He was a fighter for America.”
The church was filled with those whose lives had been touched by Chambers, who traveled from all over to pay tribute. Sherrilyn Ifill, now the seventh director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York — a position once held by Chambers and before him by Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first black justice — recalled being a nervous young attorney interviewed and hired by Chambers in 1988. Ifill spoke of his “brilliance, passion and simplicity,” and his “deep, deep respect for the common man.”
Ifill also said she only twice saw flashes of anger from Chambers, who often lulled courtroom opponents with his low-key approach – once, after his meeting with soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and then, sparked by comments from Justice Antonin Scalia at the court. “I would say he shut Justice Scalia up,” Ifill said.
Chambers’s time as student and chancellor at North Carolina Central University was remembered by current chancellor Debra Saunders-White.
James Ferguson, senior partner in the law firm Chambers founded in 1964, the first integrated law firm in Charlotte, spoke, too, ringed by founding partner Adam Stein, partner Geraldine Sumter and U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, once an attorney at the firm. Chambers tackled voting rights and employment discrimination cases, and in 1965, a lawsuit to integrate the annual Shrine Bowl, a yearly high school all-star football game between players from North Carolina and South Carolina that had excluded black players.
His battles against the status quo came with a price. His home and his car were firebombed in 1965, and his office was burned to the ground in 1971. His father’s store in Mount Gilead was burned. But Chambers was never rattled, nor did he retaliate, except through his work.
John Edwards, former Democratic vice presidential candidate and North Carolina senator, said before the service, “Julius was an extraordinary man … He changed the country, and he helped change the world.” Edwards praised Chambers’s “amazing life of courage and strength and leadership” and said, “We wouldn’t be the same without him.”
As we walked to the church, Parks Helms, former chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners who attended law school with Chambers, remembered his dedication back then. “He spent more time in the library than anyone,” Helms said of Chambers. “I am proud to have been part of his generation.” He said Chambers did much to advance the role of lawyers “in creating justice in society.”
Another former county commission chair, Jennifer Roberts, said when she spent time with Chambers, “I always felt I was in the presence of justice.” Referring to the conservative proposals passed by GOP state legislators and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory – who was not in attendance on Thursday — Roberts said it was “ironic” that Chambers “passed at a time when his work is being eroded.”
The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said before the service, “We don’t just come to remember Julius Chambers; we come to say, ‘Julius, we’re going to remember you through imitation.’” Barber, who has been leading “Moral Monday” protests at the capital in Raleigh that are now crisscrossing the state, said of Chambers, “He’s a hero; he’s a warrior. … His commitment and his courage ought to actually energize us and make us more committed to do what we’re called to do.”
In his remarks, Foxx noted that Chambers “lived to see progress and lived to see some level of retrenchment.” Taking a lesson and marching orders from the life of the determined Chambers, Foxx was not deterred. He said Chambers’s message moving forward would be three words: “Heal this nation.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3