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Opinion: Julius Chambers – a champion of justice

Julius Chambers’ compact build and soft voice often belied the giant within. But as the accolades poured in after his death on Friday, his enormous influence and his towering presence in civil rights and employment law are clear. Chambers and the law firm he founded nearly five decades ago helped transform the national perspective on critical societal issues.

His work was key to creating an environment in America where people of any race or ethnicity could achieve and flourish. It’s an environment that greatly aided the growth and prosperity of the nation, particularly places in the South such as Charlotte and North Carolina.

It is hardly surprising then that in 1999 Chambers was spotlighted as one of the 100 Carolinians of the Century on a list that includes such notables as author Thomas Wolfe, evangelist Billy Graham and Gov. Terry Sanford. Few people anywhere can claim his deep impact on the lives of so many, and on shaping the trajectory of social justice in America.

A brilliant lawyer and scholar, Chambers is known internationally for his civil rights work, in particular the 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which established busing nationwide as a remedy for segregated education. It was one of eight cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and won. But the work of his firm has had far-reaching impact beyond education, influencing public accommodations, public employee rights and employment laws.

Chambers was a stellar leader in several arenas. He was director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York from 1984 to 1993, becoming its third director and following in the footsteps of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In 1993, he became chancellor of his alma mater, N.C. Central University, which he rejuvenated. He was there for eight years.

In 2009, The Echo Foundation honored Chambers’ law firm, the first integrated law firm in North Carolina, declaring that it had done “more in its first decade to influence federal civil rights law than any other private law practice in the United States.”

At the firm’s helm during those years was Chambers, who faced down violence and threats to fight relentlessly for equal rights and equal justice for all. How dangerous was it? His home was firebombed in 1965 as he and his family slept and his office was burned to the ground in 1971.

Those incidents angered but did not deter Chambers. In his typical understated manner, he would later describe the violence against him and others at his firm as “things that made life more interesting.”

Last year, the Charlotte Chamber gave Chambers its annual Citizen of the Carolinas award. Former UNC president and Charlotte businessman C.D. Spangler praised his long career and called him “a champion of justice.”

Years before, Chambers himself talked about why he became that champion. “All of us are interested in an equal chance in life,” he said. “We achieve this when we ensure that all people, whatever their differences, are respected and provided the same opportunities we seek... We must constantly work to achieve this goal and employ the necessary tools to do so.”

Chambers’ abiding legacy is that he did that work with unmatched skill – and inspired many others to follow his example.

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