“Julius Chambers: Child of the Jim Crow South”

The following is an excerpt from Richard A. Rosen and Joseph Mosnier’s Julius Chambers: A Life in the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights. Born in the hamlet of Mount Gilead, North Carolina, Julius Chambers (1936–2013) escaped the fetters of the Jim Crow South to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s as the nation’s leading African American civil rights attorney. Following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Chambers worked to advance the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s strategic litigation campaign for civil rights, ultimately winning landmark school and employment desegregation cases at the U.S. Supreme Court. Undaunted by the dynamiting of his home and the arson that destroyed the offices of his small integrated law practice, Chambers pushed federal civil rights law to its highwater mark.

In this biography, Richard A. Rosen and Joseph Mosnier connect the details of Chambers’s life to the wider struggle to secure racial equality through the development of modern civil rights law. Tracing his path from a dilapidated black elementary school to counsel’s lectern at the Supreme Court and beyond, they reveal Chambers’s singular influence on the evolution of federal civil rights law after 1964.

Rosen and Mosnier’s Julius Chambers: A Life in the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights was featured on our Rosa Parks Day recommended reading list.

On October 6, 1936, when a son was born to William and Matilda Chambers in the tiny crossroads town of Mt. Gilead, in rural Montgomery County, North Carolina, no one would have wagered much on the child ultimately influencing the nation’s affairs. Time, place, and caste all argued against such a prospect. LeVonne Chambers—later, as a young man, he would adopt the first name Julius—arrived in the midst of the Great Depression in an isolated Southern hamlet and, because he traced his ancestry to Africa, shouldered the relentless burdens of Jim Crow.

No black child born to such a time and place easily escaped the fetters imposed by the South’s rigid practice of racial segregation, with its painful emotional slights and countless imposed vulnerabilities. Not one black child in ten in Montgomery County completed high school in those years; not one in one hundred attended college. Yet, by some combination of ability, effort, and good fortune, LeVonne Chambers would forge in the space of just thirty-four years a path from impoverished Montgomery County to the appellant’s lectern at the U.S. Supreme Court.

TO KNOW SOMETHING OF THE MAN, to glimpse the motives and instincts upon which he relied while traversing his meteoric course, one may profitably begin by looking at the isolated, poor, racist world, not so many years distant, which produced him.

Montgomery County, situated in the North Carolina’s lower center where the rolling Piedmont’s waning eastern flank gives way to a broad coastal plain, remained in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s worlds away from North Carolina’s important centers of commerce and public affairs. Not seventy miles distant lay the Piedmont Crescent, the arc-shaped constellation running from Charlotte, through the Triad cities of Winston-Salem, High Point, and Greensboro, and on to Durham and Raleigh, that encompassed North Carolina’s industrial base and center of government. Yet such relative geographic proximity counted for little in those years, as most inhabitants of rural communities, white and black alike, gave little thought to the affairs of larger towns and cities, and they visited such places infrequently, if ever.

Poor, lightly inhabited, and ravaged by the Depression, Montgomery County in 1936 was home to some sixteen thousand persons, most living on small farms. Troy, the county seat, counted 1,861 residents in 1940; Mt. Gilead, ten miles to the southwest, just 915; and Biscoe, Star, and Candor had 843, 611, and 503, respectively. Pine forests covered fully three-quarters of the county, and farms yielding a modest mix of standard field crops, cotton, and peaches comprised the remainder. The county had not gained a hard-surface road network until the 1920s, when a state road-building program finally reached the area. Industry, mostly in the form of small textile mills, arrived relatively late to Montgomery County but by the late 1920s eclipsed the very modest revenues generated by farming and lumbering activities.

After 1929, the Depression savaged factory and farm alike. By 1933, local unemployment exceeded 30 percent, with receipts from both sectors halved. During the 1930s, federal relief programs generated nine of every ten job placements for desperate local job seekers. By 1938, most of the rest of the country had seen at least some modest economic recovery, yet in tiny Mt. Gilead, lacking a textile plant or other important manufacturing businesses, conditions were so grim that a visiting University of North Carolina professor of rural social economics consigned the community to a list of “vanishing towns.” A second contemporary observer noted ruefully that “Mt. Gilead seem[s] likely to become a ghost town.”

The Depression fell hardest on Montgomery County’s thirty-seven hundred African Americans, who were already subordinated economically, socially, and politically. The average black adult in the county had managed just five years of schooling; the average white, eight years. Black illiteracy stood at 25 percent in the 1930s, against nearly universal white literacy. Shut out of textile mill employment, black men worked primarily as farmers, sharecroppers, or simple laborers, and black women as domestics. Blacks in Montgomery County in the mid-1930s controlled only 2 or 3 percent of all taxable assets. They owned no timber, mineral, or industrial property in the county; no businesses save perhaps for the odd small cafe, boarding house, or social club; relatively little farmland and few city lots; and scarcely any taxable personal property. Black per capita income was just half that of whites, at a time when the latter figure in rural, Depression-afflicted Montgomery County was itself a very modest sum. Blacks occupied the worst of the county’s housing stock, most of which, particularly outside the county’s few modest towns, took the form of rough shacks.

Richard A. Rosen is professor of law emeritus at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Joseph Mosnier earned his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and now pursues his interest in social justice in the arena of global public health.