By Todd Cohen
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In Montgomery County, where he was born and raised in the 1940s and ‘50s, Julius Chambers experienced institutionalized racial segregation first-hand.
He went on to become one of the leading civil-rights lawyers in the United States, taking on precedent-setting challenges to discrimination in the classroom, the workplace and the voting booth – and, in the 1960s and ‘70s, facing threats to his life and attacks on his office and car.
For the past six years, with federal courts reversing a growing number of earlier civil-rights decisions, Chambers has directed a civil-rights center at the School of Law at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The center works as a civil-rights advocate for low-income and non-white communities and individuals, trains new generations of civil-rights advocates and attorneys, and convenes academics and advocates across disciplines to address emerging civil-rights issues while generating civil-rights research.
The court reversals are “terrible and we have to do something to prevent it,” says Chambers. “We have to have not only a more enlightened court but leaders who want to see a more diverse America than we presently have.”
The Center for Civil Rights now has begun the quiet phase of a campaign to raise $10 million to support its operations.
Funds from the campaign, likely to kick off its public phase in 2008 and last two to three years, will generate roughly $500,000 a year in operating support for the center, says Jack Boger, dean of the law school.
With that income providing an “assured floor for our operations,” he says, the center then will seek support from corporations, foundations, individuals and other sources for specific projects.
The center, which will be renamed for Chambers, operates with an annual budget of roughly $700,000.
In addition to Chambers, who serves as founding director, the center employs two staff members, two senior lawyers, two to three recent law-school graduates who serve as fellows, four to five law students during the school year, and five to six law students during the summer.
While the center is involved in a handful of litigation at any one time, such as North Carolina’s long-running Leandro case that has successfully challenged the disparity in local financing for schools in rich and poor counties, it also provides consulting work for many clients and communities, Boger says.
In Moore County, for example, the center has represented four African-American communities in their ongoing efforts to secure municipal services and political representation from adjacent towns that are mainly white and have denied the services while excluding the communities from town boundaries, Boger says.
Unlike the 1960s, when fighting discrimination typically involved attacking a law that barred integrated schools or public facilities, he says, tackling the discrimination that low-income and non-white communities face today often requires tapping expertise in fields ranging from education, psychology and public health to city and regional planning.
Chambers says the center also works on national civil-rights issues, including education, voting rights, housing, community development, and efforts to increase diversity.
A key goal of the center is to “get communities involved and help them get leadership so they can continue their own efforts without lawyers and support form the center,” he says, “and we hope to expand that effort as we get further funding.”