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County mulls Julius Chambers’ legacy

A gesture to pay permanent tribute to the late civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers may not be so easy.

County commissioners Chair Pat Cotham wants to rename the county courthouse for Chambers. To do that, the board would have to change a 2009 policy that says the courthouse was to be named the Mecklenburg County Courthouse “in perpetuity.”

Cotham had put that action on Tuesday’s agenda, but the board decided to defer the issue until the Oct. 15 meeting.

There seems to be some resistance to renaming the courthouse since no other county courthouse in North Carolina is named for a person. All are named for the county in which they are located – like Mecklenburg’s has been since the county was founded in 1763.

Commissioner Vilma Leake said there’s been suggestions to name a school for Chambers since he is best known 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.

But Leake didn’t think a school was tribute enough for Chambers. She said she wanted him to be named for something that would teach future generations “who he was and what he accomplished.”

Commissioner Dumont Clarke said he spent an hour looking around the courthouse Tuesday and came to the meeting “with a vision” for how to honor Chambers.

Perhaps a bust “or even a life-size statue” in a spot in the courthouse where lawyers congregate, and people who use the facility would see the sculpture of Chambers and read about him.

No one disputed that Chambers, who died in August, deserves some sort of permanent, high-profile tribute.

In addition to the Swann case, he’s known for a lawsuit that integrated the Shrine Bowl, the yearly high school all-star football game between players from North and South Carolina

Yet his pushing for change won him enemies. Over the years, they burned his law office and bombed his Charlotte home and car. They also torched his father’s garage in Chambers’ hometown of Mount Gilead, 45 miles east of Charlotte.

Cotham’ proposal has drawn staunch support from many Charlotte lawyers and judges.

It also has some resistance. On Tuesday, Commissioner Karen Bentley read a letter to the Observer from Charlotte lawyer David Erdman, who chairs the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. Erdman made his admiration for Chambers clear, but doesn’t want the county courthouse name changed. He wrote it would be inappropriate to “name the Mecklenburg County Courthouse for any person.”

He said that Chambers did his most important work in federal courts and suggested that the name for a planned new federal courthouse in Charlotte ought to be reserved for Chambers.

Flap over park opening

The board also questioned Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Director Jim Garges about the $162,000 spent on the three-day opening of uptown’s new Romare Bearden Park.

Garges said the budget for the opening had been set at $200,000. He called the park a “game-changer” and said the opening needed to showcase what it can do for uptown and the county.

Leake said she’d heard from constituents that the money could have been better used for parks in her district. She and Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said they were concerned that organizers had paid Nashville singer Jo Dee Messina $33,000 to sing for 90 minutes.

Ridenhour was concerned also that a VIP reception had served alcohol using taxpayers’ money. Garges said the reception was brief and tasteful.

Other commissioners said the opening was a huge success and gave the park rave reviews.

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061
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