Julius L. Chambers, Who Argued Key Desegregation Cases, Dead at 76

By Mark Walsh — August 05, 2013 3 min read
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Julius L. Chambers, a pioneering civil rights lawyer who helped argue the landmark case in the U.S. Supreme Court that first upheld busing for school desegregation, has died. He was 76 when he died on Aug. 2 in North Carolina after an unspecified long illness, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Chambers was one of the LDF’s first interns and in 1984 became its third president and director-counsel, following Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg. The LDF began as the legal department of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but spun off as a separate organization in 1957.

Chambers was born in Mount Gilead, N.C., in 1936. When his father could not afford to allow him to follow his older siblings to the Laurinberg Institute, a private school for black students, Chambers rode a bus 12 miles each day to an all-black public high school in Troy, N.C.

He graduated from the law school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1962. After receiving a master of law degree from Columbia University, Chambers set up a small law practice in Charlotte, said to be the first racially integrated firm in the state.

In 1965, Chambers filed a lawsuit on behalf of black families against the Charlotte-Mecklenberg County Board of Education over its slow progress to desegregate its schools. In 1969, a federal district judge ordered the school system to use busing to achieve desegregation goals.

The case worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where on Oct. 12, 1970, Chambers argued before the justices that the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka justified the busing remedy for the Charlotte school system.

“It is too late in the day, 16 years after Brown to now construct some ingenious device to avoid the Brown decision,” Chambers said during the arguments in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. “Black children and parents in Charlotte have struggled since Brown. ... They desired desegregated education and know that it can only be obtained under a plan like the one directed by the district court below.”

Chambers further argued that the district court had ample justification for the remedial plan that it devised.

“Busing has been used in the past to segregate, [so] the court can use busing in order to desegregate,” Chambers said.

In its 1971 decision in the Swann case, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that federal courts had broad equitable powers to devise remedial plans to address school segregation, including for busing. The practice eventually became a source of deep controversy as the nation struggled with school desegregation.

A generation later, in 1990, Chambers again argued a school desegregation case before the Supreme Court. In Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, the justices weighed whether school districts had to remove all vestiges of prior segregation before being declared “unitary,” or officially desegregated.

“We think the [desegregation] order should remain and must remain in force until all vestiges have been eliminated,” Chambers told the justices.

However, the high court ruled 5-3 in 1991 that school districts that were once racially segregated by law may be freed from court-ordered desegregation plans if they met court orders and eradicated the vestiges of their discriminatory systems “to the extent practicable.”

Chambers left the LDF in 1993 to become chancellor of North Carolina Central University in Durham, where he had earned his undergraduate degree. He retired from that position in 2001.

Chambers’ wife, Vivian, died in 2012. Chambers is survived by a son and daughter, three grandchildren, and a brother.

Image: Julius L. Chambers, then newly elected president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in New York in 1975. —AP photo-File

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.