The statue-lined Trail of History along Charlotte’s Little Sugar Creek Greenway is poised to make history itself, with news that its backers have chosen a beloved civil rights leader to be the next figure immortalized in bronze.
Julius Chambers, who died in 2013 at age 76, will join the $5 million trail project next year, marking the first time city leaders have honored a local figure who helped shape national civil rights laws for African Americans.
Plans call for the statue to be erected by Spring of 2018 at a cost of around $250,000.
The decision to add a civil rights leader to the trail of 21 statues is all the more significant in the wake of the protests that erupted in uptown Charlotte in September. The tenor of the marches resembled the civil rights protests of the 60s, as modern day activists made a statement against the fatal police shooting of African American suspect Keith Lamont Scott.
Trail of History organizers say the decision to include Chambers was made a year ago, so the timing is coincidental. But they do see the announcement as fortuitous: A campaign is underway to raise the final $50,000 needed to pay for the statue, something backers see as a way to bring the community together.
His statue will be the third minority to be picked for inclusion on the Trail of History, including King Hagler of the Catawba Nation and Thaddeus Tate, a notable African American businessman. To date, six statues have been erected on the trail, with a seventh of James B. Duke to be unveiled in spring 2017.
Trail of History Board Chair Tony Zeiss says more than $200,000 of the estimated cost of the Chambers’ statue has been pledged, most of it from the John M. Belk Endowment. That’s not a coincidental gift, he says, because Belk was Charlotte’s mayor from 1969 through 1977 and he knew Chambers well. His wife, Claudia, attended law school with Chambers at UNC Chapel Hill, Zeiss adds.
Regional historian Tom Hanchett says several Charlotte civil rights leaders of that same era are worthy of recognition, but Chambers stands out because his legal work had an impact on the entire country. In fact, Hanchett notes the Supreme Court continues to rule in cases relying on arguments Chambers won before the court.
“Julius Chambers was a civil rights leader on a national stage. A quiet guy in person but someone of tremendous impact on Charlotte and the nation as a whole,” said Hanchett, noting Chambers founded one of the south’s first interracial law firms in Charlotte and it remains active today.
“He argued something before the Supreme Court that is still very important in American legal doctrine: Even if you can’t find a smoking gun that says an agency has discriminated, if you look at the statistics and they show it’s in favor of one racial group, that is itself evidence of a problem. It’s something the Supreme Court used in the past year to decide a major housing case.”
Coincidentally, prior to the protests that erupted this summer in Charlotte, historians say the most violent civil rights moment in city history had been the 1965 bombing of four city homes where well-known civil rights activists lived. Among the four was the home of Julius Chambers, a promising young lawyer who'd just filed one suit to integrate the city’s annual Shrine Bowl.
The bombings made national news and shattered the complacency of a city that prided itself on largely avoiding the violence rampant in other parts of the South.
“No one ever found out who did it,” said Hanchett. “The community came together to rebuild the houses and condemn the violence, and that in itself was an important moment of coming together for the city.”
Chambers, a native of Mount Gilead, graduated from law school in 1962, ranked first in his class. His fame as a civil rights activist came a decade later, when his Charlotte-based firm got involved in landmark cases involving school desegregation, employment and voting rights. Among those legal cases is the one that led to federally mandated busing to integrate schools.
All 21 of the statues destined for the Trail of History are figures who influenced the history of the Charlotte region, through war, politics, business or social change.
Charles Jonas, vice chairman of the Trail of History board, says several names came up during talk of picking a civil rights leader to honor. He was reluctant to share the list, but among those known to have been discussed: Fred D. Alexander, the first African American elected to the Charlotte City Council; Kelly Alexander Sr., a state NAACP president in 1965 who went on to be named national chairman of NAACP; and Reginald Hawkins, a man often called “the father of Charlotte’s civil rights movement” who was also the first African American to run for governor (in 1968).
“So many men and women contributed and risked their lives for civil rights that it almost feels disrespectful to single out someone,” said Jonas.
“They all approached the fight in different ways: Some went at it through the courts, some in active protest on the streets, some through the political system and some through the legal system. What made Julius Chambers unique was that he represented all those approaches.”
Those discussions included two meetings with key social, political and business figures in Charlotte’s African American community. If all goes as planned, the campaign to raise the final $50,000 will give the black community another chance to feel it played a key role.
An exact spot for the Chambers’ statue has not yet been picked, officials said. The Chambers statue project is being managed by David Taylor, president of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. He says the singling out of Chambers is not meant to overshadow or slight any other Charlotte civil rights leaders of that era. They all played an important role, he says. The goal is to raise the money by Dec. 31.
“Julius really resonated with people, as far as relevance for past and current generations,” Taylor said. “Twenty years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now, the story of Dr. Julius Chambers will still be relevant. So many of us in the African American community can relate our (success in life) to the contributions he made in the courtroom. That really makes you want to ante up.”
How to help
To contribute to the Trail of History statue of Julius Chambers, contact the Central Piedmont Community College Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-330-6869. All contributions will be recognized on the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation website, and contributors of $1,000 or more also will be recognized on signage at the statue site. The deadline for contributions is Dec. 31.