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A Tribute to Julius Chambers

Date Published: August 16, 2013

The Civil Rights Project mourns the loss of Julius Chambers, a legendary civil rights leader, who passed away on August 2, 2013.

A Tribute to Julius Chambers


The Civil Rights Project mourns the loss of Julius Chambers, a legendary civil rights leader, who passed away on August 2, 2013. Chambers was dedicated, passionate, and determined in his work for equality and racial justice. We admire all he did in some of the most important civil rights cases that expanded legal protection for civil rights in schools, in employment, and in voting rights. It was a great pleasure to collaborate with him at the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights where he was the founding director. If anyone doubts what difference one determined person can make, or how very important for the country it was to have great lawyers who came out of and truly understood the realities of race and the struggle for justice, they should just think about Chambers’ career. 

Chambers graduated from high school in May of 1954, the same month that the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision ordered an end to school segregation. He graduated summa cum laude from North Carolina Central University, where he served as student body president. Chambers continued his education by earning a master’s degree in history from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was elected the first black editor-in-chief of The North Carolina Law Review, and graduated first in his class of 100 in 1962. He then earned his master’s degree in law from Columbia University, during which time he also served as the first intern for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.   

In 1964, Chambers moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he opened what would become the first integrated law practice in the state, focusing on civil rights. At that time, there were very few white lawyers in the South who took serious civil rights cases. Chambers argued eight cases before the U. S. Supreme Court and won them all. Among these, one of Chambers’ most influential victories came in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which established a constitutional requirement for actual school desegregation in Southern cities, regardless of their residential segregation, and led to the first full desegregation of an entire large metropolitan area. Chambers fought for voting rights and also attacked employment discrimination in Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody and Griggs v. Duke Power Co., which created vital limits on the misuse of testing in ways that preserved job segregation. Chambers experienced retaliation against these victories. His car, office, and home were all bombed. However, he never wavered in his commitments and continued to fight passionately for equality and justice.

In 1984, Chambers became the director-counsel of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the great civil rights law organization at the center of the struggle to integrate America. During this time, the Legal Defense and Educational Fund litigated cases in education, affirmative action, voting rights, capital punishment, employment, housing, and prisons. In 1993, Chambers returned to his alma matter, North Carolina Central University, as the school’s chancellor. In this role, he raised academic standards for incoming students, established a fundraising campaign and the school’s first ten endowed chairs, introduced new degree programs, and created the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute to serve as a center for collaborative research with firms in the Research Triangle Park. In 2001, he returned to his law practice in Charlotte. Chambers also served as a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as the law school’s inaugural director of the Center for Civil Rights, from which he retired in 2010. 

Chambers’ work has deeply affected the lives of many people and his legacy as a lawyer, educator, and champion of civil rights will continue to impact the nation. We extend our deepest sympathy to his family and colleagues in the civil rights community.

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