Julius LeVonne Chambers
…A Legacy of Service, Love and Commitment…
“Despite what appears impossible at present, we can, with determination and perseverance, still achieve the kind of America we dream of.”
10/22/02 – Duke University School of Law Speech
A life of purpose and dedication was launched with the birth of Julius LeVonne Chambers to William Lee and Matilda Chambers on October 6, 1936, in Mt. Gilead, North Carolina. The third child of this loving, industrious, nurturing and community-minded couple grew up in an environment where love, faith, dignity, integrity and altruism were instilled by example and instruction. Respect for others, fairness, and self-improvement were expected of him and his siblings. Excellence was the standard they were to achieve. The segregation existing at that time was an affront to human dignity but not a limitation on the will and determination of the Chambers family.
During his formative years, Chambers received his education in the segregated underfunded schools of Montgomery County. Upon completion of high school, he enrolled at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and graduated summa cum laude in 1958 with a B.A. in History. He earned an M.A. in History from the University of Michigan. In 1959, he entered the University of North Carolina School of Law, where he served as the first African American Editor-in-Chief of the North Carolina Law Review and graduated first in his class in 1962. Chambers also attended the Columbia University Law School from which he earned his LL.M. He served his country in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, respectively.
In 1960, Chambers married Vivian Giles who, as his life partner, shared his goals and aspirations. Together, they hosted and welcomed people to Charlotte as they started out their professional lives. They also introduced new arrivals to the community. Vivian was an active partner in his endeavors and shared the burdens and sacrifices of that struggle for equality. Chambers’ work required much travel, but Vivian maintained their home and consistently provided stability for their two children. She was a vital sounding board for Chambers, especially regarding education issues.
Chambers’ exceptional law school achievements were noticed by Thurgood Marshall, the then Director Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York (NAACP-LDF). Mr. Marshall hired Chambers as one of the first NAACP-LDF interns, which gave him the opportunity to work with Marian Wright Eldeman. As his mission in life was to ensure equality and justice for African Americans and to remove the vestiges of slavery, Chambers returned to North Carolina in 1964 and opened his own law firm. His work was not easy, but he was never one to complain. He established the first integrated law firm in North Carolina and, over the next twenty years, built it into one of the premier firms in the area of civil rights in this country and around the world. Chambers, his partners, and support staff embarked upon an ambitious journey of ending discrimination in education, employment, housing, business, public accommodations, criminal justice, voting rights, and all other aspects of society where it existed. His fearless leadership resulted in a series of lawsuits, including major class actions against private and governmental entities, which helped shape the jurisprudence of this state and country. He argued cases before the United States Supreme Court involving education, employment discrimination, and voting rights. A soft-spoken man with a friendly demeanor, Chambers understood the claims and plights of the people who sought his representation from near and far. Their courage and strength inspired and humbled him. That understanding and empathy was clear to all of his clients who always felt greatly respected by him. He respected everyone equally, regardless of his or her position or status.
As a visionary and a strategist, Chambers had the ability to see the big picture and devise strategies to tackle issues that many saw as insurmountable. When others became discouraged, his energy level rose. Adversities did not cause him to stumble or detract from his mission. He accepted them as a part of life and moved on to continue the pursuit of his goals and objectives. Neither the firebombings of his office, his house nor his car deterred him from championing the efforts to bring about equality for all people. That is not to say that he did not have moments of concern or even fear for his personal safety and that of his family; rather, he learned to live with it. He was zealous and tenacious but not vengeful. He once remarked, “If you sit down and talk with people, you can accomplish much more than if you start off yelling and screaming . . . I’ve seen it work in a lot of situations.” (Julius Chambers, “Equal Treatment,” Greater Charlotte Biz, by Ellison Clary, December 2008.)
After twenty years in the private practice of law, Chambers returned to the NAACP-LDF in August of 1984 to become its third Director Counsel and President, succeeding Jack Greenberg. He often noted even then that the hard-earned gains were under attack, and he implemented strategies to maintain the advancements won after long and hard struggles. He told the Morgan Chronicle, “We have to defend what we have gained. We can try to isolate ourselves from those less fortunate, but there will always be something holding us back until all our people are given their full rights.” (Morgan Chronicle, December 7, 1985.) For nine years, he provided visionary and strategic leadership that allowed LDF to continue in the vanguard of the civil rights movement in courtrooms, legislative efforts in the United States Congress, policy debates, and collective and collaborative partnerships across the country. He positioned LDF to become the first line of defense against the political assault on the civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs that began in the 1970s and 1980s. He left LDF with a highly-motivated, engaged staff, an endowment, and a business plan to carry its mission forward.
In 1993, Chambers returned to North Carolina as Chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University. He accepted the position as an opportunity to nurture and explore his keen interest in the education and development of our youth. At NCCU, he applied the same visionary and strategic energy which had served him well in his earlier undertakings. During his tenure, NCCU saw tremendous growth in all areas of the institution, including the construction of the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute. Under his leadership, the University launched a fifty million dollar capital fundraising campaign and established its first ten endowed chairs, including the one million dollar Charles Hamilton Houston Chair at the School of Law. As Chancellor, Chambers had constant interaction with young people, made himself accessible to them and always took the time to encourage them in their endeavors. He was an Eagle.
In 2001, Chambers retired from NCCU and returned to the practice of law at the firm he established. At times, he was dismayed at the state of the law relating to civil rights. There was no client or cause that did not interest him. He continued to practice actively until 2013 with the same zeal and commitment he had when he started the firm.
Chambers was no stranger to academia. While practicing law in Charlotte and during his term at LDF, he served as Adjunct Professor at Columbia University Law School, University of Virginia School of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School, and University of Michigan School of Law. He served as the Charles Hamilton Houston Distinguished Professor of Law at North Carolina Central University School of Law. His final teaching position was as a Clinical Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
At the invitation of the UNC School of Law, Chambers served as the Inaugural Director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which aims to train a new generation of committed civil rights advocates, provides sophisticated social, scientific and other research, and provides strategic legal counsel and services to lower-income and non-white communities in North Carolina and the southeast. He accepted that challenge and was responsible for its successful operations until he retired from there in 2010.
Chambers was an inspiration and mentor to everyone with whom he worked. He encouraged them to be the best that they could be and demanded excellence from them. In this city, state and nation, there are many prominent members of the legal and medical professions, education, business, government and politics who were directly impacted by him. In the late 1970s, he and other leading African American lawyers and judges began communications with South African lawyers who were interested in learning how the African American legal community had mounted its challenges to segregation and discrimination in this country. Chambers and his family hosted some of them in their home. In the early 1980s, Chambers, along with The Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. and Nathaniel Jones, traveled to South Africa to meet with groups of black lawyers there who sought their advice on organizing a black bar association. The Black Lawyers Association of South Africa and its Legal Education Centre were founded and modeled largely upon the NAACP-LDF. Some of the persons he met and mentored in South Africa have gone on to become leading members of the bar and judiciary of South Africa.
His work spoke for him. He has been honored and recognized by organizations and institutions across this city, state and nation. He was appreciative of the recognition that his efforts inspired, however, he always used the acceptance of an award or honor as an opportunity to identify issues of concern to the community and to make a call for action to address those issues. He was awarded fifteen Honorary LL.D degrees and twenty-four Honorary Doctorates from Colleges and Universities. In 2006, he received the Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. Around that time, he also received an award from the NCCU School of Nursing students and remarked that while he was greatly honored by the ABA award, he was moved more deeply that the students thought so highly of him.
The awards and recognitions are too many to list but a sampling include: 2012 Charlotte Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year Award and the 2012 American Association of State Colleges and Universities Distinguished Alumnus Award;1973 NAACP Hall of Fame Award; 1983 Distinguished Alumni Award, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; 1991 Columbia University Medal for Excellence; 1996 Grand Boulé Sigma Phi Fraternity Public Service Award; 1999 Adam Clayton Powell Award, Congressional Black Caucus; 2000 Distinguished Alumni Award, Columbia University Law School; The UNC Chapel Hill Award 2001; and The North Carolina Award, Public Service in 2002. In 2005, the Mecklenburg County Bar awarded him the Ayscue Professionalism Award. The Mecklenburg County Bar (North Carolina) established the Julius L. Chambers Diversity Champion Award in 2008 in honor of him. He received the 2006 Peabody Award from the University of UNC School of Education. In 2007, his hometown of honored him by naming a street near his homeplace – Julius L. Chambers Avenue. A standing-room-only-crowd of well-wishers from all races, walks of life, ages, genders, creeds and colors gathered to witness the occasion, including a former and then current lieutenant governors. He also received the “Luminary Lifetime Achievement” award in 2008. In 2009, he received the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession Award. On December 4, 2011, the Eta Mu Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., established the Julius L. Chambers Humanitarian and Social Reform Award, recognizing and honoring the life-long work of their brother. On April 25, 2013, he received the North Carolina Foundation for Public School Children “Champions for Children” Award.
Chambers’ effectiveness as an advocate for others was possible because of Vivian Chambers’ unwavering commitment to the civil rights movement. Her support enabled him to fight the good fight. After their children became adults, she increased her involvement. Vivian was a constant travel partner with Chambers after their children grew up and left home. She provided feedback, encouragement and critique to Chambers. She was the rock who stood with him through the firebombings, the threats, the victories and the defeats. In every way that she could, she took care of Chambers. She often lamented his stubbornness in failing to slow down, or to stop piling books and papers all over the house, or to eat regularly and on time. But, she often said, “Julius is going to do what Julius wants to do. You can’t tell him to stop. He got that from his Mama. Once they make up their minds to do something, they do it.” He was able to work for the Center as long as he did because Vivian was still willing to drive him there. Her death on June 23, 2012, was a great loss to him, as was his mother’s death sixty-three days later.
Chambers made time in his busy schedule to volunteer with numerous groups and organizations, usually serving on the board of directors for the groups. Among them was the NAACP-LDF Board of Directors to which he was elected in 1973 and later chaired. Other organizations include: Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, 33° ; Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity; Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity; North Carolina Central University Board of Governors; The University of North Carolina; Legal Aid Society of New York, Board of Editors; American Bar Association Journal; Mecklenburg County Bar Association Board of Trustees; New Jersey State Board of Higher Education; Children's Defense Fund Board of Overseers; University of Pennsylvania School of Law Board of Visitors; Columbia University Law School Board of Trustees; University of Pennsylvania Chairman; State of New Jersey Governor's Study Commission on Discrimination in State Contracts; Duke University Board of Trustees; American Bar Association; Association of the Bar of the City of New York; National Bar Association; New York State Bar Association; North Carolina State Bar Association; North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers; OIC Board of Directors; Indian Law Resource Center Board of Directors; Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce; Durham Communities in School Board of Directors; Durham Public School Network; First Union National Bank, Durham, N. C. Advisory Committee; Nabisco, Inc.; Glaxo Smith Kline Foundation Board of Trustees; Educational Testing Services; Leadership North Carolina; North Carolina Partnership for Children; Research Triangle Institute; Golden L.E.A.F. Foundation, Inc.; North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company; and Advisory Committee of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute.
Many, many days of long hours and hard work were the norm for Chambers. However, he knew the value of leisure time. He was a devoted family man and loved and cherished his wife. Spending time with family and friends, watching sporting events on television or attending them in person, and boating provided needed distractions. His love of golf was well known; he incorporated it into his civil rights work. In 1978, he and a number of his golfing buddies established a golf tournament in conjunction with the North Carolina Chapter of the Legal Defense Fund Fundraising Committee Dinner. Now named in his honor, the Julius Chambers Invitational continues as a fundraiser for LDF. Chambers often caught people off guard with his dry wit. His generosity extended beyond the giving of his time and his talent. He and Vivian gave generously to a number of community groups and organizations.
Chambers’ parents held strong religious beliefs which they instilled in their children. Chambers attended church every Sunday as a child at either McAuley Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church or Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Mt. Gilead, North Carolina. Upon moving to Charlotte, he joined Friendship Missionary Baptist Church where he was a beloved and devoted member. He served as a Trustee, and he later was elevated to Trustee Emeritus status. He loved and valued his Pastor, Dr. Clifford Jones, and his Church family. When he left Charlotte for New York, he joined Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York where the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts was Senior Pastor. While in Durham, he joined White Rock Baptist Church where Dr. Reginald Van Stephens was Senior Pastor.
Even while experiencing declining health, Chambers retained a keen interest in current events and offered commentaries on recent local, state, and national developments. He was dismayed to see legislative enactments of the last session of the North Carolina General Assembly and urged a strategic collaborative effort to combat the attacks on education, employment, voting rights, and other basic tenets of human dignity. He was disappointed by some of the recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in civil rights cases. Chambers transitioned on August 2, 2013, with his mind staid on freedom and justice.
Chambers loved, honored and respected his parents who, by example, showed him the importance of family. He always stopped in to visit when his work travels took him near Mt. Gilead. Both of his parents predeceased him, his mother in August of 2012 at the age of 101. Chambers’ sister, Lois Antoinette Henderson, and his younger brother, Willard Philmore Chambers also predeceased him.
Chambers’ elder brother, Dr. Kenneth Chambers, and his wife, Grace, survive him with the knowledge that Chambers knew of their love for and devotion to him. They are grateful for his time on this earth. Chambers also is survived by his son, Derrick LeVonne Chambers (Margaret) and his daughter, Judy LaVern Chambers. They grew up in a home surrounded by their parents’ friends and colleagues from all walks of life and gained the enrichment that flowed from it. The sickness and death of their parents over the past six years has been difficult for them, but they are grateful for the lives that they lived; three grandchildren, Bré Simone, Amaya and Myles, all of Charlotte, were a joy and delight to Chambers. Hanna Assefa of Raleigh, originally of Ethiopia, came to this country to complete her education and became a part of the Chambers family. She loved, revered and misses them. His brother-in-law and sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews and a host of other relatives and friends also survive him and cherish their time with him.