Commentary

Do we remember whose shoulders we stand upon?

Julius Chambers, in 1970, as he received word of McMillan's ruling on Swann. Photo: Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

Last Thursday the community memorialized Julius Chambers. Speakers described him as brilliant. Committed. Humble. Courageous. Unrelenting.  A drum major for justice. A fighter for America. A giant among men, though quiet and short in stature. A man who changed the lives of millions of people. 

Chambers, Charlotte in the national spotlight

Julius Chambers represented the plaintiffs in the landmark case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which established busing as a constitutional method for desegregating schools.

UNC Charlotte's J. Murray Atkins Library houses the Julius L. Chambers papers. Click here for a biographical sketch and more information.

Yet few among the crowd at his memorial service were those who have benefited the most from his lifelong battles: members of my generation, who have never had to fight the blatant injustice of state-mandated and legally codified segregation, systematic workplace discrimination and obvious district gerrymandering to inhibit the black voters’ political power. We seem to have forgotten his victories, which have allowed us to live in our world, rarely thinking of the rights and access we have that our parents and grandparents did not.

Julius Chambers fought for me, for you, and for our community. He is a giant whose shoulders we all stand upon. Yet I am concerned that young people do not recognize his contributions. This leads me to that familiar saying: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” In the near future, must we fight, again, the battles that led to the victories Julius Chambers achieved during his life?  

Chambers seemed to have lived the lives of several men. He graduated No. 1 in his law class at UNC Chapel Hill, was editor of the law review, served in the Navy and Army, started the first integrated law firm in North Carolina, argued eight cases in front of the Supreme Court and won them all. He was director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a position formerly held by Thurgood Marshall. He was one of the founders and then director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, and he went on to serve as chancellor of his alma mater, N.C. Central University. His life’s work not only focused on the injustices in the United States but the globe we live in, including human justice work in South Africa. In addition to his three degrees, he was awarded 39 honorary degrees. And until the week he died at 76, he was actively engaged in his lifelong fight for justice.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx remarked, “Everything I have achieved can be traced back to the war that Julius Chambers waged.” Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, was born in Charlotte in 1971, the year Chambers successfully litigated Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg. For Foxx and thousands of nonwhite graduates of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, that court case meant they “would not go to school with hand-me-downs.”

For white Charlotteans like me, it meant I would receive the academic, social and emotional benefits of attending desegregated schools.  While Chambers is most known for this victory, his unrelenting work for justice in all areas of life arguably changed the lives of every citizen in the United States.

Yet his legacy seems largely forgotten by many people beyond those who shared his life work. At his memorial service, I saw few Millennials, particularly non-black Millennials. My experience with my own network echoes this. My Facebook and Twitter feeds barely registered his passing, though my network includes hundreds of native Charlotteans, educators and those engaged with social justice issues.  

Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, echoed this sentiment during her remembrance: “The young lawyers know very little of him.” 

Julius Chambers’ life can serve as a reminder to all of us that one person can improve the lives of many. Chambers worked for justice by focusing on a problem and steadily working to fix it—using his quiet demeanor, refined analytical skills and sense of humor. He was steady and committed, character traits to which all of us can aspire.

The passing of a hero should provide us all with deep gratitude for the sacrifices made and victories won for all humanity. Julius Chambers should be, and will be, remembered as a civil rights icon.

His passing is a reminder that the fight for justice is as important now as when he was being educated in the segregated, underfunded schools of North Carolina’s Montgomery County from 1941-1954.

How can we make sure that this giant among us is not forgotten once members of his generation leave the center of public life? How do we share his life story and the history of his perseverance despite long odds? How do we describe his commitment to change what he knew needed change, and his ability to work steadily and collaboratively with that end in mind? This must be the work of all of us. We all must remember.

To truly honor this public servant who gave so much to humanity, I urge you to make sure that your children and your children’s children know that the fight for justice is ongoing and that in addition to more famous icons such as Martin Luther King Jr., others, such as Julius Chambers, have come before us and have courageously done so much to pave our way. We must remember that we do not stand on our own feet, but rather upon their shoulders.  

Views expressed in commentary articles here do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Top photo credit: Charlotte Observer Photograph Collection, Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. The photo was taken August 7, 1970.