As many as 3,000 mourners paid final tribute Thursday to civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, a man remembered as an “extraordinary drum major for justice” who changed lives in Charlotte and across the country.
The tributes came at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, where the sanctuary was packed with civic and political leaders from across the state as well as veterans – and beneficiaries – of Chambers’ landmark legal battles.
“I consider myself a child of Julius Chambers,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Charlotte’s former mayor. “Everything I’ve achieved in my life can be traced back to the war Julius Chambers waged against unfairness.”
Foxx was born in 1971, the year of Swann vs. the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandated cross-town busing to end local school segregation. It was one of Chambers’ eight high court victories.
“The case meant for me that I would not go to a school with hand-me-down books…,” Foxx said, “that I would have the chance to experience the opportunities that Julius Chambers saw for young black children.”
Chambers died Friday after months of declining health. He was 76. A native of Mount Gilead, he was not only a nationally known attorney but a renowned educator and mentor for a generation of young attorneys and African American leaders.
One was Sherrilyn Ifill who went on to take the job Chambers once held as director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York. Originally hired by Chambers, she traveled to Charlotte with other attorneys from her office.
“We’re here because of the powerful example he set as a civil rights lawyer,” she said, recalling his “brilliance, passion and simplicity.”
The most important lesson for her, she added, was “the centrality of the clients, of the people, to our work.”
“The incessant focus on clients revealed Julius’s deep respect for the common man,” Ifill said.
The price of justice
In 1964, Chambers opened North Carolina’s first integrated law firm in Charlotte. He attracted lawyers who have gone on to leave their own mark, including U.S. Rep. Mel Watt and civil rights attorney James Ferguson.
“Not only did he change my life, he changed the life of practically everybody he met,” Ferguson said, with Watt and law partners Adam Stein and Geraldine Sumter standing behind him.
Chambers was remembered for helping the voiceless and challenging the powerful. Sometimes it came at a price.
Over the years, his enemies set his law office on fire, bombed his Charlotte home and his car. They also burned his father’s garage-general store in Mount Gilead. But Chambers was never vindictive. “If you sit down and talk with people, you can accomplish a lot more than if you start off yelling and screaming,” he once told a reporter.
Ifill said she only saw the soft-spoken Chambers get angry twice. Both involved the Supreme Court.
Once was at a meeting with Clarence Thomas during his nomination hearings. The other was at the court when he took issue with comments from Justice Antonin Scalia.
“I would say he shut Justice Scalia up,” Ifill said.Chambers was also remembered as chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University, whose current chancellor recognized the dozens of graduates at the service.
Chancellor Debra Saunders-White recalled his undergraduate years as the school’s under-sized quarterback whose football teammates nevertheless considered him “a giant among men.”
Following in footsteps
Among the mourners were Attorney General Roy Cooper, former University of North Carolina System President C.D. Spangler and former Charlotte mayors Harvey Gantt and Richard Vinroot. In the balcony was former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, for whose presidential campaigns Chambers served as treasurer.
At the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Chambers followed in the footsteps of another attorney, Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the first African American on the Supreme Court. On Thursday, Ferguson put his former partner in the same pantheon as Marshall and other long-gone African American pioneers.
He talked about seeing them in a vision when “They all looked up at the door and in walked Julius.”
Foxx said Chambers, who fought not only for civil rights but against employment and other discrimination, touched people of all races.
“There are people on Tryon Street, people on Wall Street and all across America who owe their careers to this man,” he said.
“Julius Chambers wasn’t just a fighter for African Americans. He was a fighter for America.”
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