North Carolina’s most important lawyer

By: D.G. Martin - Contributing Columnist

The most important lawyer in modern North Carolina history finally has a biography.

This week, UNC Press is releasing “Julius Chambers: A Life in the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights” by Richard A. Rosen and Joseph Mosnier.

If you do not agree with my assertion about the importance of Chambers, read the book, and then we will talk.

When Chambers died in 2013, I wrote, “Simply put, Chambers’s work and the work of others he inspired are directly responsible for North Carolina casting off a culture of segregation and repression and replacing it with one of inclusion and opportunity.”

In their new book, Rosen and Mosnier show in great detail how Chambers and his colleagues did it.

Beginning in 1964 when Chambers opened his law practice in Charlotte, he initiated a whirlwind of legal actions that attacked and often overturned traditional discriminatory practices in education, employment and government.

The authors explain carefully and clearly the major legal cases and how the victories and defeats for Chambers came about.

But, as the book’s introduction explains, while his legal victories were his most notable achievements, his story “is of necessity as much about the times as about the person.”

When Chambers was born in Montgomery County in 1936, depression times were bleak, especially for rural blacks. However, during these times, his father built a successful auto repair business, which provided enough income to send Chambers’s older brother and sister to Laurinburg Institute, a nearby private high school for college preparation. Plans for Chambers to attend the school were dashed when a white customer walked away from a $2,000 bill.

His father was unable to persuade any white lawyer to represent him. Chambers lost the chance to attend Laurinburg. “Years later,” the authors write, “he would locate his choice to practice law in this moment.”

I remember the day in 1962 when I first heard the Chambers name in a radio report that a Negro law student at the University of North Carolina School of Law had been appointed editor of the Law Review and had the highest grades in his class.

Rosen and Mosnier describe how Chambers overcame an inadequate high school experience. “I didn’t know how to write an essay and could hardly spell,” Chambers said. But he succeeded at North Carolina Central and in graduate school at the University of Michigan, so much so, that he was admitted to the UNC’s law school even though his LSAT scores were rock bottom.

Although he established himself near the top of his class during his first year, there was no warm welcome at the law school. Chambers’ and his wife Vivian’s “feelings of isolation were compounded by their exclusion from any place in the life of the law school, and they could not help but resent the dismissive and demeaning treatment they encountered on campus.”

The combination of great success and demeaning treatment would follow Chambers throughout his early professional career. In 1968, when Chambers began an oral argument before the state’s supreme court, Chief Justice R. Hunt Parker “stood up and left the courtroom; the chief justice returning only after Chambers concluded his presentation.”

Ironically, last month in Raleigh, the N.C. Literary and Historical Association awarded its R. Hunt Parker Award for Literary Achievement to Gerald Barrax, an African-American poet who taught writing at N.C. State University. Barrax’s powerful poetry draws on the struggles of people like Chambers and his parents.

Thanks to the changes that Chambers’s advocacy and his example forced on us and to the more welcoming attitudes that has accompanied them, I can imagine that had Chambers and Parker been alive to see Barrax receive the Parker award last month, the three of them would have happily smiled and posed for pictures together.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

D.G. Martin

Contributing Columnist