History

About Julius L. Chambers

Julius L. Chambers was one of the most important civil rights lawyers in our nation’s history, litigating numerous precedent-setting cases in voting rights, education, employment discrimination, and public accommodations. He was an inspirational mentor to hundreds of lawyers, and the Center is named in his honor.

Julius LeVonne Chambers was born in Mount Gilead, N.C. His father owned a garage. When a white customer refused to pay for repairs, Julius’ father sought the help of white lawyers in town, but none would take the case. According to Julius, that’s when he decided he would become a lawyer.

After high school, Chambers attended North Carolina Central University (then North Carolina College). He was student body president and graduated summa cum laude. He earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Michigan then attended law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was elected editor in chief of The North Carolina Law Review, the first African American to be editor of the law review at a predominantly white law school. Chambers graduated first in his law school class, but could not attend the law school’s annual banquet, which was held at a segregated country club.

Following law school, Chambers was selected by Thurgood Marshall for an internship with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He then returned to North Carolina and opened a civil rights law firm in Charlotte, which became the first integrated law office in North Carolina. In a short time, the firm was working on 35 school desegregation suits and 20 cases regarding race discrimination in public accommodations. Along with partners James E. Ferguson II and Adam Stein, the firm won numerous groundbreaking civil rights victories in the U.S. Supreme Court, including Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, in which the Court authorized the use of busing to achieve school integration; Griggs v. Duke Power and Albemarle Paper Co. v Moody, which expanded the law of employment discrimination to prohibit disparate racial impacts of racially neutral policies; and Thornburg v. Gingles, which determined that it is not necessary to prove intentional discrimination in voting rights cases. 

Chambers’ dedication to civil rights did not come without a cost. At various times during his career, his car, home, and office were firebombed. Undeterred, he and his growing law firm continued to bring and win major cases that impacted civil rights nationally.

Chambers left private practice in in 1984 to become the third Director- Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which he led for the next nine years, defending the legal gains of the civil rights movement against challenges from an increasingly conservative Supreme Court. In 1993 left LDF to become Chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University. He left Central in 2001 to return to private practice and to become the founding Executive Director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights at his other alma mater, UNC Law School. Chambers led the UNC Center until retiring in 2010. He passed away in 2013.

Julius was committed to passing on his tireless dedication to social justice, racial equality, and community engagement to succeeding generations of civil rights lawyers. He used to ask each day, “What great things are you working on?  We hope that the work of the Julius Chambers Center for Civil Rights stands as a meaningful answer to that question.