The death of Charlotte civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers gives us the opportunity and, perhaps, the responsibility to reflect upon his importance as a public figure. Simply put, Chambers’ 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.
That said, his passing brought to my mind many personal memories.
I remember the first time I heard Chambers’ name more than 50 years ago. In 1962, as a student at Davidson College, still all male, all white, I heard a radio report saying 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. I never forgot his name. From that moment on I understood that blacks could not only be just as good lawyers or law students as whites, they could be better, much better.
Six years later I got to meet Chambers for the first time. It was the spring of 1968 and I was in my last year at Yale Law School when I learned that he had started an integrated law firm in Charlotte. So I decided to come back to North Carolina to knock on Chambers’ door and visit other law firms.
I started in Raleigh where I got my friend John McConnell to introduce me to people in his law firm, Broughton and Broughton. Everyone there was busy working on Mel Broughton’s campaign for governor in the upcoming Democratic primary.
Then, thanks to a good friend’s dad, W. W. Taylor, Jr., I visited his firm, Maupin, Taylor, and Ellis, where I got a warm welcome. But after waiting a long time to see Mr. Ellis, I learned that he was meeting with Jesse Helms about a political campaign, probably Mel Broughton’s.
In Charlotte, my friend, Ross Smyth, got me an invitation to visit Kennedy, Covington, Lobdell, and Hickman. Marcus Hickman invited me into his office to talk. Before we got started, he took a telephone call. For a long time, he counseled Jack Stickley, who was a gubernatorial candidate in the Republican primary. That talk went on for a half an hour before Hickman had a chance to look me over.
Later that day, I walked down East Trade Street. to visit the Chambers law firm in a walk-up office above pawn shops and low-end clothing stores. Chambers’s partner, Adam Stein, greeted me and sat me down outside Chambers’s office. I watched and listened through an open door as Chambers gave Dr. Reginald Hawkins advice about his Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign. After a long while, he motioned for me to come in, and we spent a few minutes talking about his hopes for his law firm and for the community’s future.
Neither Broughton, nor Stickley, nor Hawkins won their primary elections. I returned to law school without an offer from any of the firms I visited.
But the glimpse I got of lawyers and their political lives demonstrated that North Carolina was going to be a very interesting place for me to live and work.
A month later, Marcus Hickman’s firm gave me an offer that led to 20 happy and fulfilling years of law practice with that group.
It took Julius Chambers 30 years to offer me a job. While serving as chancellor of North Carolina Central University, he asked me to serve a short time as a vice chancellor. It gave me the chance to experience up close his determined work ethic and hard-driving, demanding leadership style, together with the quiet authority his service and success had earned him.
For these memories and the better North Carolina he left us, I will always be grateful to Julius Chambers.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.