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Civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers dies at 76

Julius Chambers. (27130)
Julius Chambers.

Julius LeVonne Chambers, an African American lawyer, civil rights leader and educator, died Friday after months of health complications. He was 76.

Chambers grew up during the Jim Crow era in rural Montgomery County, North Carolina. As a child, Chambers saw firsthand the effects of discrimination when his father’s auto repair business became a target of racial injustice in 1948. A White customer refused to pay his father, who couldn’t afford a lawyer to file suit against the man. Chambers said that experience influenced him to pursue a career in law in order to help end segregation and racial discrimination.

After graduating from high school in 1954, Chambers enrolled at North Carolina Central University where he graduated summa cum laude with an undergraduate degree in history in 1958. He earned a graduate degree in history from the University of Michigan. In 1959, Chambers entered law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was the first African American editor-in-chief of the school’s law review and graduated first in his class of 100 students in 1962. From 1963-1964, Chambers also served as the first intern for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in New York, having been selected by LDF’s Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall.

In June 1964, Chambers began a solo law practice in Charlotte, which successfully litigated a number of key cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. The firm’s efforts were met several times with violence from White supremacists.

While Chambers was at a speaking engagement in January 1965 in New Bern, his car was destroyed by a bomb. On Nov. 22, 1965, Chambers’ home was bombed along with three other homes of African American leaders: North Carolina NAACP President Kelly Alexander; his brother Frederick Alexander, a Charlotte City Councilman, and community activist Reginald Hawkins. No one was injured. In February 1971, Chambers’ downtown Charlotte law office was also firebombed.

In 1984, Chambers returned to the NAACP’s LDF as its highest executive, director-counsel. Under Chambers’ leadership, the LDF litigated cases in the areas of education, voting rights, capital punishment, employment, housing and prisons. During this period, the LDF was perhaps best known for its work in defense of affirmative action programs of the 1970s and 1980s.

He left the post in 1993 to become chancellor of his alma mater North Carolina Central University, where he served until June 2001.

Chambers is survived by two children, Derrick and Judy, and three grandchildren. His wife, Vivian Giles Chambers, proceeded him in death last year.