Activist: Civil rights struggle not over
By Josh O'Gorman
Herald Staff | January 24,2008
SOUTH ROYALTON — The civil rights movement is not over and it is up to today's youth to continue the fight for equality.
That was the message delivered by Julius L. Chambers to about 150 listeners at the Vermont Law School's Chase Community Center on Wednesday. The event was part of the law school's annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.
The event opened with the mostly white audience, composed of law students and students from South Royalton High School, standing to sing the African American National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
Afterwards, Chambers shared his extensive history in the civil rights movement as well as his view of racial politics in America today.
Chambers grew up in the South during the era of Jim Crow laws and segregation. He was a senior in high school when the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education ended school segregation in the United States. After graduating first in his class with a law degree from North Carolina Central University, Chambers interned with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund under Thurgood Marshall, who had argued the landmark case and would go on to become the first black Supreme Court justice.
After his internship, Chambers returned to North Carolina where he founded the first integrated law firm in the state and argued civil rights cases, which led to Chambers' car, home and office being fire bombed.
Chambers told his audience of his first case with the Legal Defense Fund. He was dispatched to defend demonstrators who had marched with Dr. King and were being charged with rioting. Chambers recalled the judge left town in the middle of the trial.
"The judge had to leave for duck-hunting season," Chambers said, "and that was more important than our trial."
Chambers next went to Virginia to defend 7,000 people who had been arrested for demonstrating. Chambers said the cases were appealed and the prosecutor chose to drop the case.
Chambers later argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including two cases in 1971: Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which allowed schools to use busing to desegregate, and Griggs vs. Duke Power Co., which struck a blow against workplace discrimination.
Chambers acknowledged the civil rights movement has come a long way since 1954, but said segregation and racial inequality is still present in America. Chambers said neighborhoods remain segregated, resulting in segregated schools. He noted minority students continue to score lower on standardized tests than their white counterparts.
"Many people think that racial discrimination is no longer a problem," Chambers said. "That is why I am here to talk to you today. We need more people who will become lawyers and fight for equality."
Chambers said he found there are far fewer civil rights lawyers today than there were during Dr. King's time, and even fewer who are willing to take on pro bono work for indigent clients.
"I understand lawyers who went to law school and end up $150,000 in debt and need to pay it back," Chambers said, "but we have more and more poor people who can't afford to engage our legal system."
Chambers noted the civil rights struggle today is not just about race and noted that poor people come in all colors.
"After 45 years of civil rights litigation, I am concerned that we are more engaged in show than reaching out to our brothers and sisters," Chambers said.
Contact Josh O'Gorman at firstname.lastname@example.org.