January 2016

Julius Chambers, James Ferguson, Adam Stein


Julius Chambers, James Ferguson, Adam Stein

Few people of their generation have had the impact on North Carolina as three lawyers who co-founded a now-prestigious Charlotte law firm in 1968.

“We were the first racially integrated law firm in the state of North Carolina,” said James Ferguson, one of the co-founders. “We felt … we would be creating and living out the idea of racial equality that drove us all to get together in the first place.”

Julius L. Chambers founded the firm as a solo practice two years after graduating first in the Class of 1962 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law. In the firm’s early years, Chambers worked alongside the NAACP’s legal team, fighting against school segregation and discrimination in public accommodations.

Re-forming with Ferguson and Adam Stein, the firm gained recognition from its involvement in a series of important civil rights trials of the early 1970s.

In 1971, the firm won Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the landmark United States Supreme Court case allowing busing for school integration nationwide, argued by Chambers.

At this time, all of the firm’s members faced violent opposition from white supremacists. In two separate instances, Chambers’ car and house were bombed, as was the firm’s office following the Swann case.

In spite of these obstacles, the group championed the case of the Wilmington Ten, a primarily African-American group convicted of firebombing a grocery store during racial strife in 1971. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit overturned the convictions in 1980, and Governor Beverly Perdue issued pardons of innocence in 2012.

Also in 1971, Stein argued against school segregation before the United States Supreme Court in Cotton v. Scotland Neck. He explained, “The legislature had gerrymandered a white school district out of a heavily black county.” The court held in favor of Stein and found the gerrymandering unconstitutional.

“We probably handled more significant civil rights cases through the 1970s and 1980s than any private law firm in the country,” Stein said.

In 1984, Chambers began serving as president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, following in the footsteps of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg.

Meanwhile, Ferguson was working with the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA), which he considered “the foremost trial advocacy group in America in the effort to improve the trial skills of lawyers.” In 1986, as Chairman of the NITA Board, he led the organization in establishing South Africa’s first trial advocacy program, providing skills training for attorneys of all ethnicities.

“Both black lawyers and white lawyers have benefited with the program,” said Ferguson, who visits the well-established group frequently. “It has been one of my proudest moments.”

In 1988, Stein was back before the U.S. Supreme Court with the West v. Atkins case, which dealt with medical care for prisoners. As Stein explained, the decision “held that the state is responsible for the prison doctors with whom it contracts.”

One hallmark of the firm was the teamwork with which the partners approached cases. They often traveled together to meet with African-American leaders in local communities.

Stein said, “Chambers would engage in friendly banter and then we would discuss local issues, such where discrimination in the community was happening and what could be done about it.”

Ferguson explains, “Our firm has been heavily involved in desegregating all aspects of society–public facilities, the ballot box, employment. You name it, we’ve done it.”

Chambers, the firm’s principle founder, grew up in rural Montgomery County, where he recognized the potential power of the legal system in combatting discrimination. A white customer of his father’s auto repair shop refused to pay for service, but his father did not have the resources to file a lawsuit.

Segregated schools in Asheville, where Ferguson grew up, provided his motivation for entering the legal profession. In high school, he was a founder of a group called the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality, which had some success but could not bring about parity between schools.

“It was that experience, more than anything else, which led me to become involved in the effort to bring about racial justice to people who had been denied it for years,” Ferguson said. “So I went to North Carolina Central [University], knowing that it was my intention to come back and bring about as much equality in society as I could.

“Eventually, the schools were desegregated and I handled the school desegregation in Asheville in the late ’60s or early ‘70s. In essence, I went back to Asheville to finish what I started as a student there.”

Gov. Jim Hunt appointed Stein to serve as North Carolina’s first Appellate Defender in 1980. Stein now works at another law firm in Chapel Hill.

In 1993, Chambers left the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to accept the position of Chancellor of North Carolina Central University. Under his leadership, the school transformed from a liberal arts teaching institution to a mid-sized university with research in biomedical sciences. He retired from academia in 2001 and returned to the firm, where he continued to practice law until his death in 2013.

Ferguson, still at the original firm in Charlotte, continues to be passionately engaged in helping to end discrimination or racial disparity.

Regarding his work, Ferguson said, “I’m not sure I have an average day.”

Creditline: Evan Schmidt