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From his own segregated school to the Supreme Court — in 1971, Julius Chambers prevailed

·4 min read

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer newspaper on April 21, 1971.

The archived news print page shows no byline. The author recounts Julius Chambers’ reaction to his legal victory at the United States Supreme Court, arguing the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education desegregation case.

Julius Chambers Waited A Long Time

When Rev. Coleman Kerry first told Julius Chambers about Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling in the Charlotte school case, Chambers didn’t say a word.

So, Kerry — Chambers’ minister and a former school board member — tried again.

This time, the lawyer said simply, “That’s great.”

But later he admitted that he was “elated” and he told one of his associates — in his deliberately off-hand way — “I guess you know that decision was unanimous. And the opinion was written by Burger. We sold the Chief Justice,” he said with a shy smile.

The long awaited decision came on a day when Chambers had a week-old cold. He spoke more softly than usual and admitted that he “might give in and go see a doctor.”

At his office, the telephone intercom buzzed constantly with congratulatory calls and requests for exclusive interviews. By mid-afternoon, there had been about 50 calls in all. The office was quiet though with only three of the firm’s seven lawyers in town.

Chambers grumbled about all the questions from reporters and scowled at the microphone one television reporter put around his neck, but he answered their questions patiently.

Chambers may have been waiting for this day longer than many realized. Although this case officially Swann v. the Board of Education began in 1964, its roots go back to the lawyer’s high school days.

His senior year in high school meant a bus ride to Troy — 24 miles round trip — so that he could attend a consolidated high school there. Looking out the window, he saw high schools for white students. The black boy wasn’t allowed in those schools. The year was 1953 and it would be another year before the U.S. Supreme Court would rule “Separate is not equal.”

Eight years later, he was named one of the first two interns for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He worked on civil rights cases in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

Chambers said Tuesday that he didn’t yet consider the latest court ruling a landmark decision because, “We like to think of it as reaffirming what the court said in ‘54. Of course, a landmark decision is one that is made of interpretation. If this decision is used as a catalyst for desegregating the North ... then it might be a landmark ... but I haven’t seen the text. I don’t know if it will have that effect or not.”

Told that William Booe — a fellow lawyer, Chambers’ opponent and a newly-elected school board member — had called Tuesday “a dark day for America,” Chambers rebutted.

“It’s a great day. The court has cleared the way for implementing ... what blacks have been struggling for the ages ... this is one of the greatest opportunities for blacks to realize their objectives ... to enjoy the rights most Americans have had for years.”

But with the victory comes more work.

The decision may also affect Chambers’ cases in Winston-Salem, Greenville and Wilson, and, possibly Wilmington. (The decision upheld Judge James B. McMillan’s ordering busing students across town to achieve racial balance.)

Chambers and his firm, Chambers, Stein, Ferguson and Lanning, represent the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 32 school desegregation suits in North Carolina.

“There are 20 or 25 school cases which have to be heard by August,” Chambers said Tuesday. “But getting them heard isn’t the problem really. Finding someone to draw up a plan is.”

Chambers said he would have preferred having a North Carolina educator design a desegregation plan in the Charlotte case, but he had to go all the way to Rhode Island to find someone willing to tackle the controversial issue, Dr. John A. Finger.

He said he thought most persons in this city and in the country wanted to obey the law. “I hope now the community can work together to give our children the school system they deserve.”

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