Great Lives in the Law: Julius Chambers Lecture

The judicial and political atmosphere for defending civil rights in America is far from ideal today, veteran civil rights lawyer and activist Julius Chambers told a packed lecture hall at Duke Law School on Oct. 22. But the fight is worth fighting and progress still is possible, the well-known litigator and educator said during the second installment of Duke Law’s Great Lives in the Law lecture series.

"It is true that we have new members of the Court," Chambers said. "It is also true that the majority of them do not view the Constitution as an affirmative arbiter of the rights of minorities and of other disadvantaged. But, as I will argue later, using our system of governance, our judicial system offers the best hope for a permanent resolution of our struggle for improved opportunities, and there is hope that, despite what appears impossible at present, we can with determination and perseverance still achieve the kind of America we dream of."

The Great Lives series, launched in April with a talk by the Honorable William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the United States, invites to the School lawyers and judges whose lives have been distinguished by substantial legal accomplishments that have helped change the law or its institutions. The series is sponsored by Duke Law School and the Duke Program in Public Law.

Chambers, who recently completed an eight-year term as chancellor of North Carolina Central University and practices law in Charlotte, cut his teeth on civil rights law four decades ago. After establishing a one-man practice in Charlotte, which later expanded into the first integrated law firm in North Carolina, Chambers and his colleagues scored several major civil rights successes in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Among the best known of these landmark cases was Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in 1971, which led to federally mandated busing, helping to integrate public schools across the country. Chambers and his team also won in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. in 1971 and Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody in 1974, two of the Court's most significant Title VII employment discrimination decisions.

In his speech, Chambers said he regularly experienced discrimination as a child in rural western North Carolina. In one unforgettable instance, his father, a mechanic, had repaired a white man’s tractor-trailer, but the owner refused to pay the bill – money Chambers’ family had hoped to use to send him to boarding school. No lawyer in the state would touch the case of a black man trying to sue a white one, Chambers said. And that was merely one example of the widespread racial inequality that shaped the landscape of his youth.

"I, therefore, decided early that I would train to become a lawyer and that I would devote my life to civil rights and civil liberties," Chambers said. "For me, this was an important decision and I will remain grateful for the support and encouragement I have received along the way." That support came from some giants of the legal and civil rights community, including Thurgood Marshall, Jack Greenberg and John Hope Franklin.

Chambers’ devotion to civil rights regularly led to tests of his courage and resolve. During the Swann case, he repeatedly was threatened, his office was torched and his car was firebombed. Despite the danger, he pushed forward and convinced the Supreme Court that busing was an acceptable tool for desegregating schools.

In 1984, Chambers left his firm to become director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City, the same organization that had helped him set up his initial practice. LDF handles up to 1,000 cases at any given time, covering areas such as education, voting rights, capital punishment, employment, housing and prisons. Under Chambers' leadership, the organization championed civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs that began in the 1970s and 80s.

Those programs sorely needed champions, much as they do today, Chambers said. "We were slowly beginning to appreciate that for a long time in the future we also had to fight to sustain the limited gains we had achieved," he said. "President Ronald Reagan had pledged during his administration to appoint federal judges whom he believed would be less aggressive or active in enforcing Constitutional rights – strict constructionists, they were called, who would interpret the Constitution as it was written in 1776."

Chambers also lamented that the current Court is not as friendly as it once was to the causes he has spent a lifetime supporting, requiring a change in tactics for many civil rights advocates. "We still are trying to ensure improved employment opportunities, access to health care and to decent housing," said Chambers, who also is director of UNC Law School’s new Center for Civil Rights. "Discrimination in the administration of criminal justice remains a pervasive problem. Today, however, civil rights groups plan more how to avoid bad decisions by not presenting cases to the Court rather than how to obtain favorable ones in order to improve opportunities."

Now is a time for patience, he added. "Today we have to wait, despite what Dr. King said, and wait for the right kind of Court and the right kind of Congress" Chambers said. "We don’t have the most receptive Congress, we certainly don’t have the most receptive executive, and we don’t have the most receptive Court."

Still, Chambers said he has seen much progress in the decades since his father was unable to collect a debt from a white man. And in some recent writings, Chambers said, he sees signs that the Court may be moving more toward his way of thinking than many civil rights lawyers would believe. He singled out justices Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O’Connor in particular. O’Connor, by the way, is the next speaker in the Great Lives series and is due to visit Duke Law School in April.

"I am optimistic that we will be able to continue with efforts to build the kind of America we dream of, a country of equal opportunity for all without regard to race, color, sex, religion, or economic status," Chambers concluded. "Like Justice Marshall, I believe that kind of America is possible and that we preserve our efforts best by utilizing our system of government in the process of achieving it. In this endeavor, I remain as optimistic as Dr. King. I, too, have a dream."