Mecklenburg County Commissioners Chairwoman Pat Cotham is quietly building support to rename the countys courthouse after a home-grown legend the late civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers.
If successful, it would be the first county courthouse in North Carolina dedicated to an individual.
Cotham said the soft-spoken, unflappable Chambers, who died early last month at 76, vastly deserves the tribute after spending decades fighting racial and employment discrimination in the courts. He took eight cases to the U.S. Supreme Court including a lawsuit to integrate Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and won them all.
Its the right thing to do. He made an impact on so many people in our state. He was a national giant and he was ours, Cotham said. I dont want people 50 years from now 100 years from now to forget who from our community was on the frontlines of the civil rights movement.
It was Julius Chambers. We have rights today because of what he accomplished.
She said shes gathered support from lawyers and judges in Charlotte and from across the state, including members of the state appeals and Supreme courts.
Charlotte lawyer James Ferguson, Chambers friend and law partner for nearly 50 years, said Chambers would not have sought the recognition.
As modest as Chambers was he would have appreciated it for what it meant to the community and how far weve come, but not to him personally, Ferguson said.
Itd be a great tribute to Chambers and what he stood for.
Some county courthouses in North Carolina have rooms dedicated to people, but all are named for the counties in which they were built.
The courts that do business in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse are the peoples courts, Cotham said. Julius Chambers was a man of the people.
A civil rights warrior
The renaming idea hatched for Cotham at Chambers funeral last month, as she sat among thousands listening to eulogists recounting his significant achievements.
He was raised in Mount Gilead in Montgomery County, where his father, William Chambers, operated a garage-general store on the outskirts.
The story is well-known, but Chambers decided to pursue law after a white customer of his father refused to pay his bill.
None of the white lawyers in town would represent him.
Julius Chambers graduated summa cum laude from North Carolina College in Durham, now N.C. Central. He graduated first in his class of 100 at UNC Chapel Hill law school in 1962, where he was the first black law review editor.
Chambers would later serve as N.C. Centrals chancellor for eight years after heading the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York for nine years.
In 1963, Chambers and wife Vivian arrived in Charlotte to set up a practice. It would become the first integrated firm in the state.
In his first year, he took on 35 school desegregation cases and 20 suits charging discrimination in public accommodations.
During his career his law partners arent sure he ever retired Chambers took on hundreds of cases if he thought a persons rights were being trampled on.
Yet he was probably best-known in Charlotte for suing the local school board to outlaw segregated schools. From Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that busing could be used to achieve racial balance in schools.
Chambers also successfully sued to desegregate the yearly Shrine Bowl, a high school all-star game.
Yet all his pushing for change won him enemies. Over the years, they burned his law office, bombed his Charlotte home and his car. They also torched his fathers garage in Mount Gilead.
It never left him bitter, or vindictive.
As Ive said many times, Julius Chambers probably did more to advance our community than any individual person I know, said U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, a former Chambers law partner. He deserves every accolade, honor and commendation that we could possibly give him.
Renaming can be done
Renaming the county courthouse for Chambers would be a good start, Cotham said.
At present, the countys 2009 naming policy stipulates that the courthouse be called Mecklenburg County Courthouse in perpetuity. A majority of commissioners would have to vote to remove that language to make the renaming possible, said County Attorney Marvin Bethune.
After that, the board would follow naming guidelines.
Itd be most unusual since it would be the only courthouse in the state named for a person, Bethune said. But I havent found anything yet that says you cant do it.
Sharon Gladwell, spokeswoman for the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, said rooms such as lounges for judges or attorneys have been named for people, but no entire county courthouse in the state.
Cotham wasnt sure Thursday when shed bring the renaming matter before commissioners.
She said she felt private money could be raised to remove Mecklenburg County and replace it with Julius Chambers above the courthouses main entrance at 4th and McDowell streets.
I dont believe that it would be a big deal, she said. I think a lot of people would line up to keep the name of someone so important to this county permanently in the forefront.
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