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NC civil rights leader Julius Chambers dies at 76

Updated at: 08/03/2013 8:05 PM
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(AP) CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Julius Chambers, a Charlotte attorney whose practice was in the forefront of the civil rights movement in North Carolina, has died, his law firm said Saturday. He was 76.

A statement issued by his law firm, Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, said Chambers died Friday after months of declining health. A specific cause of death wasn’t given.

"Mr. Chambers was not the first lawyer of color to try to address the issues of equality," firm partner Geraldine Sumter said Saturday. "He would tell you he had people like Buddy Malone of Durham that he looked to, the Kennedys out of Winston-Salem. The thing that Mr. Chambers brought to that struggle was a very focused, determined attitude that things were going to change."

The N.C. chapter of the NAACP called Chambers "a man of tremendous courage."

"His home and his car were firebombed on separate occasions in 1965, and his office was burned to the ground in 1971, during the height of some of his most contentious civil rights litigation in North Carolina," the NAACP said in a statement. "When he spoke of these events, Mr. Chambers was typically matter-of-fact, insisting always that you `just keep fighting.’"

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper called Chambers "a friend who set a courageous example of doing what is right regardless of the cost."

In 1964, Chambers opened a law practice that became the state’s first integrated law firm. He and his partners won cases that shaped civil rights law, including Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education regarding school busing.

The 1971 ruling in the case mandated crosstown busing and highlighted the power of federal courts to intervene when local public school systems hedged en route to full integration. The case came as then-Gov. Bob Scott had just taken office. Although Chambers won the case, Scott had already pledged that he wouldn’t allow state money to be spent for busing.

"Chambers probably, being one of those lawyers rooted in the South, was able to see the inequities more clearly because they were so stark here in the late 60s and `70s," Sumter said.

The Charlotte Observer reports that Chambers took eight cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won them all.

Born and raised in Mt. Gilead, Chambers was the third of four children. He came to what was known then as North Carolina College at Durham in 1954 and graduated summa cum laude in 1958. Chambers received a Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Michigan and studied law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received the LLB degree with high honors in 1962 and was admitted to the North Carolina bar.

Chambers also served as chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University, from 1993 to 2001.

"His rich legacy will live on forever at this alma mater through the countless initiatives that began during his tenure and continue to thrive today," said N.C. Central Chancellor Debra Saunders-White.

Sumter said Chambers cared about young people no matter where he went.

"I have never gone anywhere with Chambers where he didn’t approach a young person and ask them what’s your name, where are you from, who are your people, where are you going to school," she said. "It brought him joy and satisfaction that young black people were doing well and trying to go forward."

Among his survivors are two children, three grandchildren and a brother. His wife, Vivian, died last year.

Funeral arrangements haven’t been completed.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)