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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Chancellor Chambers, let me begin by asking if you can talk a bit about the influence your father had on the development of your personality and your eventual career. Tell us about him.
CHAMBERS: Well, my father did not have the opportunity to complete high school or college, but was insistent on all of his children getting a college degree. And he didn't have a lot of money, and he worked hard to make sure that we could get into a good school and could get a degree and get out and become competitive. He worked as a mechanic and began with my older brother, sending us away from college and sending him away to the boarding school, Laurinburg Institute. He wanted all of his children to go to Laurinburg Institute. And then he made sure that we all went away to college. That educational emphasis was a major part of his teaching. He also taught us how to respect others and how to fight to ensure that the rights of others were protected. And I think those three principles were things that I gained from my father that I never forgot.
BOND: Did he teach by example? There is a story that you tell about him being not paid for a job he had done by a white man which frustrated his ability to send you to Laurinburg Institute. What lesson did you learn there, if any?
CHAMBERS: I guess I got a lot out of that, and I will never forget it. And he wanted to send me away to Laurinburg Institute as well and had done some work for a white citizen there in my hometown and wanted to collect for that work. And the gentleman decided not to pay and he didn't pay. So my father had to come home to tell me and the family that he didn't have the money to send me away to school. And he also told us that he was trying to find a lawyer to collect, that he couldn't find a lawyer in North Carolina who would bring a lawsuit to try to collect the money from this person. And it was with that that I decided that I would go to law school to try to provide some assistance for black people who were experiencing the same kind of thing in the South.
BOND: Now what other figures in your youth – teachers, ministers – what other figures influenced you in any kind of way?
CHAMBERS: I had some good teachers who influenced me. One was an elementary school teacher, whom I will always admire, who is dead. One was a high school teacher. I had several good teachers in college. One was Helen Edmonds —
BOND: Oh, sure.
CHAMBERS: — whom you know. And another was Culvert Jones. And then in law school I had a dean who was very strong in insisting on the rights of people. And I never will forget Henry Brandis who served in that role, and he was a great influence on my life as well.
BOND: And after Jack Greenberg, Thurgood Marshall, and on. We want to come back to this, but I mean, have there been a succession of figures that in one way or the other influenced you to do this, do that, or behave in a particular way?
CHAMBERS: There have been a number of people who influenced my thinking and my life beyond college and law school. And you mentioned Thurgood and Jack Greenberg were two, and there really were several others, several of the cooperating attorneys around. I remember we were just talking about Don Hollowell and C. B. King. There was Leon Higginbotham, Bill Cullen, among others. And they had a great impact on me.
BOND: We were also talking just a moment ago, and I don't want to spend too much time on this, on the stature of those men, particularly that you just mentioned, and women like Connie Motley, and what appears to be an absence of similar kinds of figures today, and we were reflecting on whether it's a reflection on us and our age or what it is. Do we have comparable figures today?
CHAMBERS: We probably do, but not in the same vein that we remember them from times back. And it may be that the demands on people today are quite different. We, in our younger years, were fighting race discrimination, segregation, in fact. Today we are looking at something much more complex. And the leaders we have I think have to approach the problems differently. And we don't really see the kind of leadership we saw with the Connie Motley or Thurgood or Jack Greenberg, or Leon Higginbotham, because they are operating in a different mode. And I like to think that we have some leaders today who are doing some great things. I think of Vernon Jordan as a leader who does some great things. I know a number of people in business who are doing some great things. A number of leading educators who are doing some great things. But their approaches are different than the ones that we knew back in the 1950s and '60s.
BOND: Well, I wonder, for an example, I am the son of a man who was an academic and involved in higher education. And when I was, I guess, in my twenties, I knew the names of many of the presidents of the historically black colleges, probably because of my father's association with them. Today with the exception of you I know almost none of the names of these people. And I wonder if it is because — why is that so? Why don't these figures, these current day figures stand out in the same way that the past figures seemed to me as a young man?
CHAMBERS: Well, that's true. I mean, I know most of the presidents of HBCUs. But that's because of where I am today. But I think that you probably don't know the white college presidents either.
CHAMBERS: And so I don't know that it's a lot different in that respect. We have some good educators today. Not the Benny Mays or the Mordecai Johnsons. But they are doing great jobs in their own way. And they are not the kind of public figures that one would see with the Benny Mays or a Mordecai Johnson. And I wouldn't discount that leadership as extremely important for African Americans today.
BOND: Let me take you back a bit. You go to all black schools through your first master's degree until you enter law school.
CHAMBERS: Well, I went to Michigan prior to that.
BOND: Yes, you go to Michigan and then you return to North Carolina to go to law school. And what was that experience like? Some years — just a few years before you could not have done that. That was not tolerable in North Carolina.
CHAMBERS: Well, that's true. When I went to undergrad school in 1954 I could not go to Chapel Hill. They did not admit blacks. It was a great eye opener, though, to leave North Carolina Central and go to Michigan and see the advantages that white kids were experiencing with the resources that they had and opportunities. And to think about what black people would be able to do had they had those kinds of resources. Which is another thing that really encouraged me to get more involved in the civil rights struggle.
BOND: You might have gone to law school in Michigan, in Indiana, and in any of the other northern, western, mid-western states where blacks routinely went to law school. Why come back to North Carolina?
CHAMBERS: Well, I couldn't normally go to the University of Michigan. In fact, at the time Michigan was accepting one black a year.
BOND: Oh, really?
CHAMBERS: And a friend of mine was selected.
BOND: So he took your space.
CHAMBERS: She did. She took that quota. And so I was told then by Michigan that I ought to look at Howard or North Carolina Central. Anyway, we not only had discrimination in the South, we had it in the North, as well.
BOND: Indeed. I didn't realize it was quite so rigid that late. So you go to North Carolina and how many black students are there in the law school?
CHAMBERS: At Chapel Hill?
BOND: At Chapel Hill.
CHAMBERS: Then there were about eight. They had admitted their first group of black students. I think about four or five. And I think about three went in with me, and there were one or two others there. So about eight black students there at the time.
BOND: And what was the atmosphere?
CHAMBERS: It was quite interesting. The dean called me in when I first got there and advised me that if I wanted to do well at law school, I should not talk to any white women and that I should not go to any of the dances of the law school. And I didn't talk to any white women and I didn't go to any of the dances at the law school. So, I got through fine.
BOND: What did you make of this advice?
CHAMBERS: It's kind of surprising because I knew that although they had admitted a few black students, they were still very much a law school of the South and pretty much segregated. But for the dean to call me in to tell me that, I thought it quite blatant and wondered what would happen if I went to court and talked about the advice that I got. And I thought later about the problems that were involved in Sweatt v. Painter where the court talked about the need for a student to be able to partake of all of the attributes of an institution. Fortunately I got through law school and didn't have to worry that much about it.
BOND: But he also advised you not only not to talk to white women and not to go to dances, but not to get involved in the protests, which are swirling around both North Carolina and the whole South then. Do you think that in retrospect this advice was well meaning and kindly disposed towards you, even though it was — it had to be a little off putting? Do you think he —
CHAMBERS: I think that knowing the dean, that it was well meaning. And I admired the dean, who was Henry Brandis. And I think that he really meant the advice to be helpful and I didn't take it as an affront, so — and it worked well. So, again, for me, the process of opening up opportunities for all people is one that cuts across racial lines.
BOND: Now, in being one of this tiny number of students, of black students, and being at the top of your class, and being on the Law Review, already people must be saying, "Watch that young man, he's a leader now, and he's going to be a leader in the future." Did you ever think of yourself as a leader? A leader academically or a leader in any broader sense?
CHAMBERS: Not really. I didn't really think about it. And quite honestly don't even think about it today. Then I was interested in getting an education. I wanted to make sure that I was as prepared as anyone else. And that I would be able to do the job that I had chosen effectively. I wanted to be able to demonstrate that I could measure up to anybody. And so I worked hard. And I didn't really think about leadership or whatever role I would play as a leader in that respect.
BOND: But in the sense you are the leading scholar in the school, or among the leading scholars in the school, and by virtue of being a member of this tiny minority in the school, a leader in that sense too. So you must have known that others are looking to you for some kind of leadership.
CHAMBERS: Well, I knew that I had the best grades in the school. I knew that I was getting involved in some activities that others were not getting involved in. But, again, I never thought about it as a leader. And it didn't really come to my attention at that time. So there was so much more that we had to do. Getting out of that law school, getting by the bar, which was a chore in itself, and then getting out to practice, because we didn't have that many blacks practicing law in North Carolina. And so those were the areas that I was concentrating on more than anything else.
BOND: Did you ever have the feeling during this early period in your life, both college, the master's degree, then law school, then a subsequent master's degree, that "other people are watching me," that in any way "I am a representative of others, I've got to do well in order to demonstrate to them that it can be done"?
CHAMBERS: I thought of that only with respect to my father and mother, who insisted that I go out and do well. And they made those comparisons. I didn't really think about it in terms of others looking at me or toward me for any kind of leadership role or any kind of example. Again, with your upbringing you are taught to study hard, do the right thing, and you will be able to succeed. And so that's the philosophy that I was following at the time.
BOND: But you must have, or maybe not, but I'd guess you must have thought that, fairly or not, other people, white people, would look at you, and if you fail you are representing the failure of the race, fairly or not. Was that ever part of the calculation?
CHAMBERS: Sure. That's true. I knew that. I went to law school and I was immediately drafted in the service. And I always attributed that to the fact that I was going to a white law school.
BOND: Oh really?
CHAMBERS: And we worked out an arrangement where I could go into reserves. And I went into the reserves. And then in my community there was concern about my going to this white school. A lot of other white kids weren't able to go to that school, get into the law school. And there was some resentment in that respect. But overall, I think — Iook at it as kind of a learning opportunity for me and for a number of the people there in the community.
BOND: Now what about in the black community? If there is resentment in the white community that little Johnny Johnson down the street should have gone to Chapel Hill and instead Chambers is going, in the black community there must have been sort of opposite prideful reaction.
CHAMBERS: Well, I think there was some of that. There were some people who were quite pleased that we were going, because I think a lot of people felt that getting out and practicing law would provide some opportunity — I'm talking about a lot of black people — opportunities for them as well. They were experiencing the same kinds of problems that my father had experienced.
CHAMBERS: We still had an all-white court and a white system of justice. And the black people in my hometown were experiencing this every day. And anything that looked like it was bringing some change to that system was welcomed.
BOND: I wonder if on the occasions when you come home while in law school did people bombard you with legal questions? "What about this? What about that?"
CHAMBERS: I don't — I don't recall that. My father ran a garage. And growing up I worked in the garage. And the questions that I was bombarded with at that time were like: "What do I need to do with this carburetor or generator or — ? not, "What are my legal rights?"
BOND: Can you still answer those questions today?
CHAMBERS: They change cars so much today that I don't know — I don't think they have a generator anymore.
BOND: Now one thing that has characterized, or seems to have characterized your career, is a kind of coolness, a little reserve, as opposed to a flamboyance that one associates with other — is this conscious or is it simply just you?
CHAMBERS: I think that it's some of both. You know, I watched Jack Greenberg operate. I watched Jim Nabrit operate. And I compared them with Thurgood Marshall. And I thought that what Jack was doing or his approach was a way of having greater effect on a judge or on a jury than the flamboyance that I saw among a lot of attorneys. And I calculated approaches that tried to achieve those kinds of results. And so I — I can tell you, people keep telling me that I talked too softly or I do things that people can't hear or understand or whatever. But that's — it's not something intentionally done in that respect. It's just a habit that I've grown into that I continue to do. But if I'm in court, or even in a public arena and trying to influence people, I do try to come across less flamboyant than —
BOND: That's a deliberate choice, because the quieter person is paid more attention than the louder person, in my experience, in a speaking mode.
Let me ask you again about leadership and your own leadership. Undeniably you are a leader. By virtue of the work that you've done over the past several years, by the positions you have held and do now held, you are someone who is listened to and to whom others look for guidance and direction. Now, it's generally thought that people come to leadership positions in three distinct ways, that sometimes overlap, that movements throw up leaders. That movements boil and rumble, and bam! someone emerges out of the movement and becomes a leadership figure. Or that events happen to just tumble the right way at a certain moment in time and some figure emerges who's a leader. And then the third way is that leadership figures themselves create these events. Now can you associate yourself with one of those three notions? Or has your life been a combination?
CHAMBERS: Well, accepting the premise that I may be a leader and accepting the premise that —
BOND: No, you have to accept the premise. You have to accept the premise.
CHAMBERS: And accepting one of those three approaches for leadership, I would think that I became a leader through changes or developments in society of a moment that produced a person in this position. I really haven't calculated anything. And I wouldn't be interested in doing that. I think that there was a need to fill a void. I mentioned, I keep talking about black people – my father particularly – needing lawyers, and I could fill that role. And I — I did. And I will continue with that kind of objective. And there I think that that's more just the moment producing a person who one might call a leader.
BOND: You know, some of this speculation is only speculation. What if? What if that hadn't happened? What if this had happened? But I wonder if you can reflect on the path that you might have taken had this incident with your father involved his health and the failure of a doctor to come forward to treat him? Might you then have said, "Gee, I'll become a doctor"?
CHAMBERS: That might have — well, I understand. That might have been true. There was a need for more black physicians in my community. And, in fact, we didn't have one. And I don't think that we have one in my home town even yet. But it was just perhaps fortuitous that it was the law that necessitated some kind of movement at that time. And I was able to do something about it. My brother did go into medicine and, I think, helped to fill a void at that moment. But my commitment was in law.
BOND: Now, I, of course, never saw Thurgood Marshall in the court room but I've listened over and over again to his argument in Cooper v. Aaron, and I'm surprised at the passion he brings to it. Not that he wasn't supposed to be passionate about these cases, but somehow or another it seemed to me odd in that setting, in the Supreme Court. How different was Jack Greenberg or Nabrit from that passionate style of Marshall?
CHAMBERS: Well, I think both Jack and [James] Nabrit had a tremendous impact in the court because I was about to say earlier when you were talking about the quiet person and the influence, it all depends on the substance of what the person is presenting.
CHAMBERS: And I think Jack or Jim presented substance. In Thurgood's case, Thurgood presented substance, but you had to appreciate a court that didn't care what substance that you were presenting. And you had to do a little bit more than what you would ordinarily expect in a discussion in the Supreme Court. So I think that Thurgood had to employ and did employ the right kind of approach with it.
BOND: Again, I never saw Greenberg in court, but he strikes me as much more low key than Marshall. And I never saw Nabrit, but he also strikes me as much more low key. And are you attributing that both to personality differences and a change in the composition of the audience? The judges, the justices who are being addressed, who are being appealed to? Have they begun to change by the time Greenberg comes along as opposed to Thurgood?
CHAMBERS: Yeah. First of all, Jack was back there with Thurgood.
BOND: Yes, they're contemporaries.
CHAMBERS: But I would think so. I think when Thurgood started he was there with a court that really wasn't that moved by any substantive arguments about the unfairness or unconstitutionality of discrimination. And he had to appeal to other — to other means. Jack, on the other hand, had precedents that he could call upon and he had substantive areas of arguments that he could present — and he did — that would convince a court that it ought to provide different results. I listen to Joe Rauh argue in the Supreme Court in the sit-in cases. And it was the most impressive argument that I have heard in the Supreme Court. He was carrying on a regular dialogue. But Joe could raise his voice when he felt it was necessary. And he could talk softly when he thought that would carry the point. And I think that that was a great display of — well, you call it flamboyance, raising a voice and also talking softly and presenting a very substantive and moving argument. So I think all and all, all of them were great. And they had to do what they did for the moment. Another example was Connie Motley. Connie had substance, but she could really be impassioned at times, when she thought it was appropriate. I remember a number of discussions in court with some district court judges who didn't care much about what she was talking about. And how through her voice and her expression, she was able to have an impact when one ordinarily would not have been able to have in that court. So people have different approaches. And I think that many of them, at least I did, employed those approaches depending on the circumstance.
BOND: Are you likely, or could you imagine yourself finding yourself in a court room situation where your personality would have to shift radically, where you might pound the podium, where you might raise your voice, where you might adopt a different style?
CHAMBERS: Me, personally, I think that it would be a little hard to do. I was in the Supreme Court I guess about eight or nine years ago. And the court asked me a question that I thought was so improper that I was about to pound and rough 'em and thought differently about the way that things ought to be handled. There are occasions when you really would like to do something else, but I think that I am so ingrained with the approach that I have followed over the years that I would be hard put to...
BOND: Let me ask you about a different aspect of the approach that you followed over the years that it strikes me looking back over your career that you have always had this commitment to diversity, always had this commitment to integration, and even today as chancellor are committed to improving the diversity at this historically black college. Why did you come to this position in the first place? And why have you remained so steadfast in it over time?
CHAMBERS: I firmly believe that we are a world that is diverse and the only way that we are going to effect change and provide opportunities for all people is through diversity. And we got to bring all the people together to deal with it. We, in the early stages of my life, taught primarily about black and white people. We were separate. And the only way that you could improve opportunities for black people was to bring people together and give people an opportunity to speak, to work, to do what they needed to do as a combined group. Now we have many more ethnic groups, races, and all, involved in and you really have to do more in bringing people together with that. And you got to be much more diverse. Additionally, I saw that diversity produced a much more substantive approach to problems. There is nothing like sitting down and talking and hearing different views and being sensitive of the views that other groups might present. Is it better to have a public education system? Do all ethnic groups want to have a public education system? Can we develop a dual system in the sense that one is public and one is private that would be equally effective? And you need to hear from all the people. And sometimes different groups bring ideas that will help to advance a cause that one group wouldn't think about.
BOND: But even in 1954 when the Brown case was initially decided there were those black people who said "this is awful. We are going to lose teachers. We are going to lose schools. We are going to lose history. We are going to lose memory." And, of course, in many cases that's exactly what happened. How do you — can you reassure people who honestly believe that this process is not going to work out for the best, it hasn't worked out for the best in the years from '54 to today, it's not going to work out in the future, it's a big mistake." How can you reassure those people? Or convince them that they are wrong?
CHAMBERS: I think if one looks at what really has happened over the years as we've moved from a rigidly segregated society to where we are today, it is not a completely integrated society, but it is one where African Americans and other groups have been given some opportunity to work and to make contributions they hadn't been able to do before. And I think that all of us are the better for it. I look today at African Americans in business, in major industries. I look at African Americans in education and how they have cut across the different institutions and one can go down the line. And they are making meaningful contributions. And I looked at how many people had benefited, African Americans in my opinion, from integration over the years, and saw the increased number of middle-class African Americans, as we call them. And I know, that as I counted, there were like 30 percent of the black people still disadvantaged. But bringing up two-thirds of the African Americans to a decent standard of life was a tremendous accomplishment.
BOND: At the same time there is this almost constant thread running through African-American thought from the earliest years, certainly in the 20th century, until today. And that notion that, you know, we just can't get along with these other people. They are not going to get along with us, they don't like us, they never will, we need to separate. We can be with them on the job, let's say. And maybe, on occasion, we can be with them in the school, but as much as we can, we need to be by ourselves. And you see this in the growth of such areas as Prince George's County, Maryland, this enormous enclave of successful black people who flock there in order to be with others like themselves. You see it in the great demand for vouchers. About 60 percent of black people want these vouchers. Many I think so that they can send their kids to elite black schools as opposed to failing black schools. All of these phenomenon argue that this separatism strain is very, very strong, not a majority, by any means, but strong in black America. Is that ever to be — will that always be the case, you think?
CHAMBERS: Well, it certainly has been the case for many years in our history. I notice even back in the 1890s we had the strong move toward preserving a separate society. But as the world grows and expands and as we bring many more people into this society, I don't think that we are going to be able to survive talking about a separate existence. Certainly we can talk about a separate residential area. But then at some point even residentially we have to begin to worry about whether we would get the city/state services we need for a convenient lifestyle. And as we do that, and if we are not in a position where we can communicate and influence others who are allocating the resources, we will be at a terrible disadvantage. So the other thing that I think very strongly is I think that people get along better and they help to promote the malls of society working and living together and not as separate entities. And so for morality's sake, as well as, in my opinion, for the Constitution, it's always better to promote an integrated society than to talk about a separate existence.
BOND: So in some respects both your brother and yourself feel this need that's got to be filled and choose yourselves to fill it. Now the need — those particular needs aren't anywhere near as great today as they were then. What needs and in fact what movements are throwing people up or drawing people in today? What challenges do people feel today that you didn't feel in your time and place?
CHAMBERS: Well, first I think I probably felt a lot of these needs, but I thought at the moment there were some that were just greater. Even today there is a need for more lawyers. I know a lot of people would differ with it. We do have a number of lawyers. But I am talking about lawyers in the mold of Charlie Houston who — and Thurgood Marshall — [who] look at an injustice and try to figure out how the law can be used to help to correct it. Law is there. There is a need for more African Americans in science. It's appalling – to see the role that science can play in improving opportunities for all people. To think that we are talking about the developments today with the human genomics. We can determine through the cells what problems are caused by x or y and how we can deal with it. And to think that we don't have that many black people involved. And to know that the research that is going on in those areas today largely ignore the particular problems that black people bring to the forefront. If we're going to be out determining how to address illnesses and we know that black people have different illnesses or bring different problems to the table, and then to know that we don't have anyone concentrating that much in that area. We desperately need to get more black scientists out and involved.
I don't want to digress on it, but I remember when we were talking about environmental equity, and we looked around the country – I was in with the Legal Defense Fund – to find a black scientist. We found one person, in California, who was inundated and couldn't address the problems that we had. We had — one area that we were concentrating on then was the exposure of black children to lead poisoning and the devastating effect that was having. And we knew that we had the dumping of hazardous waste in black areas. Not a black person could be found who would be able to provide that kind of expertise. And even today there is a real problem with it. So that is an area that I think is crying out for black people. We hear people talking about the digital divide. Well, there's a terrible problem. I think we graduated like three people with a Ph.D. in math. That's horrible. And that is a growing and crucial area in this country. So there is a need for getting more African Americans involved in science and math.
BOND: What's the challenge there? I don't mean the structural challenges, the scholarship money, the early training. Are there other challenges to getting young people to say, "Gee, I want to be a mathematician, I want to be a computer specialist, I want to be a scientist?" What's the challenge to getting people to make the choices as you made them as a youngster to become a lawyer?
CHAMBERS: I think the challenge is getting people to change their ways of thinking about their role. My parents taught me that I ought to be a teacher. So even studying history while talking about going to law school, they insisted that I take education. So I got a teaching degree. We haven't thought — most black people don't know that much about science, about math, or certainly about computers. And so they aren't teaching their children about them. That's changing some. But it's a cultural issue that we really have to work on to change. And there are some efforts underway to do just that. And we have to do more to ensure that we get more kids in.
BOND: Again, back to leadership. In your present position as a chancellor, you are trying to take your institution and to move it in certain directions towards science for an example. Now is this job made more difficult or easy because of the absence of or presence of a general feeling in North Carolina, let's say, or in the country generally, that there aren't enough black scientists? Or are you having to convince people of the need and then say "Here we are, we are going to fulfill it"? That is, are you coming out of a movement, a demand? Are you articulating the demand of a movement? Or are you setting a demand?
CHAMBERS: You know, I think there is some of both. I know when we developed a biomedical research facility, I was amazed with the kind of support we were able to get from industries in the Research Triangle area telling them that we needed to train more black scientists. We needed to focus more on medical research in areas that would affect black people and poor people. They all agreed. They responded with financial contributions, with advice on how we ought to proceed with doing this and doing that. We are now trying to develop a genomics or bioinformatic center. And we are telling people there is a need for doing or getting more blacks involved in training the area, and they agree. And they are providing assistance with that as well. So I think that we have to move to encourage people to provide this kind of support they know we need in order to get these programs started. But I see them responding, believing as we do that there are too few black scientists and they want to do what they can to help.
BOND: Would it be fair to say then that you are both leading and following, following a general societal recognition that there is a need and leading toward getting that need fulfilled?
CHAMBERS: I would think so. I would agree with that and think it's absolutely necessary. What's great is that the general population appreciates the need for fulfilling these gaps and the people are willing to provide their assistance to help them.
BOND: Now is this a life-long characteristic – both leading and following? That is, following the demand from the larger society, either black or black and white, that here is a problem, something has got to be done about it. And then you're leading toward a solution as you did at the LDF, as you did in the Swann case? Is that a life-long characteristic, both following and leading? And following is a bad...
CHAMBERS: No, following is fine. It's a good description. And I think that that's true of all "leaders." I remember back in the early stages of the civil rights movement when we lawyers were trying to advise students about what they should do, and students said if we were lawyers then we would provide protection as they led. And they led. And we followed. And so I think that's been true in many other areas that we have a movement out that sort of directs the course for others to follow. And most "leaders" have followed in that respect. There are roles I think that leaders can play in helping to determine the best approach for addressing the causes that people have identified. But I'm trying to think back historically at periods when a "leader" decided what ought to be done and then got everybody to follow. And I am somewhat at a loss right now to...
BOND: It's easy to think of the opposite. You know the famous quote by Gandhi: "There go my people, I have to catch up with them, because I'm their leader." So, it's easy to think of the opposite where the people pull the leader along. But I guess there are occasions where the leader pulls the people along. I'm thinking about Martin Luther King and opposition to the war in Vietnam, which surely wasn't popular when he began to articulate it. But in time, about half of the public begins to adopt this view. Never much more than half, but about half the public.
BOND: And in your own life when in-- is it '65?--your car is bombed, your home is dynamited? I mean, this has to be a challenge. This is a challenge to your leadership. These are people saying "this is serious business, we are going to do something, we can do something worse than this" -- if you could imagine anything worse. I mean, that's a real challenge to your leadership, and must have — how did it affect you?
CHAMBERS: Not, quite honestly, not very much. I wasn't deterred, and I expected from your experiences and the experiences of many other civil rights activists, I knew that there was always a danger that somebody would do something horrible. And so I didn't — that was a risk that took and decided to take and proceeded. I didn't really get that uptight about some of the activities. I did try to find out frequently who was doing what.
BOND: But then seven years later your father's auto shop and your own law office burned down. I mean, this had to be devastating for him and for you.
CHAMBERS: Well, it was devastating for him. But for me, again, it was the same feeling that these are things that one will likely experience in trying to effect change. And —
BOND: But he's an innocent in this regard — your father?
CHAMBERS: Yeah, he is innocent in the sense that he wasn't the lawyer that was doing all this. But he was the father and supporter of the effort underway. And I think that he anticipated that some of these things would occur. So he didn't stop working or try to encourage me to stop working. And it continued. The question that you pose, though, about leadership and following and developing a movement, even about Martin Luther King and the movement in the latter part of his life, I thought there were some efforts already underway that he joined.
BOND: Yes, indeed.
CHAMBERS: So it's a good question. But whatever I think that a good leader knows what particular movements are worth pursuing and how best to bring his or her people along to get them involved with the particular issue.
BOND: Now your efforts to try to diversify your institution, I've heard you say, were controversial and there had to be people who had to say, "This is just awful. We are going to lose the character of this school and everything about it's going to change. And an institution that we treasure and value is going to be irrevocably changed in ways that we don't like." I know I asked you earlier how you reassure people who have these views. But you expected, I'm sure, this kind of opposition. And how do you reassure them or tell them, as I think I have heard you say, that these changes are inevitable, that they cannot be stopped, they can't be halted?
CHAMBERS: I mostly tell them the latter.
BOND: But I bet they come back to you and say, "Yeah, but you could slow them down if you wanted to."
CHAMBERS: Well, they do say that. But the best – result for African Americans under those circumstances are to get involved and help to decide how those changes will take place, rather than setting out in opposition and not being involved in the changes. We've seen a number of schools integrated where African Americans have gotten involved in the process and have helped to affect those changes. The results have been much better for African Americans. And so, what I argue, at least, is that these changes are inevitable. They are going to take place. But if you get involved now and help to map out how those changes would take place you can help decide the most advantageous position for African Americans with these changes. And whether I convince anybody of that is debatable, but I think it's the best result.
BOND: That leads naturally into another kind of discussion – race consciousness. You've got to imagine that most African Americans have a fairly high level of race consciousness, because the larger world creates this consciousness and the world in which we live reinforces this race consciousness. Not so true with majority Americans. But how much can you say has race consciousness played in the development of your life and career? How much has the consciousness that you belong to this race and that this race occupies quite often an inferior position and has a history of struggle – what has this meant to you?
CHAMBERS: Well, it is an important factor in my life and in my work. I don't think that we can really help all people without talking about race. I can't point out that one sees too much injustice against black people unless I am talking about black people, unless I am pointing toward the group that is adversely effect. And that requires a discussion, an emphasis on race. And I don't think one can affect change or the kind of solution that I think is necessary without employing race in the remedy. So I would be the first to concede that one has to consider race and race has to be a primary factor in our lives and the determination of violations and in the remedy that we employ. And it probably will continue to be as long as we have this major emphasis on race in this country. What I am suggesting about the integrated society I think is what I would hope would occur in the long run. But I don't expect it to occur overnight either. And in the meantime I think we've got to employ race.
BOND: There are increasing numbers of people who say, some in quite prominent positions, who say, "You know the very fact that you keep bringing this problem up drives us further apart rather than brings us together. If you would only stop talking about race all the time, we would be so much better off, because we could put this problem behind us." What do you say to those people?
CHAMBERS: You know it would be great. But we all have seen too much return to the old ways of doing things when we talk about race-neutral approaches. I watch now as the court and the general public talk about approaching matters in a race-neutral way. And the same group being the first to condone continued disadvantage of black people, for example, and sure, they get upset when one points out the differences based on race. But that's a fact. And they ought to be appreciative of people pointing that out. I watched this last election and saw several African-American candidates defeated by a white candidate. If one were fair and objective, there is no way that one could explain those defeats other than by race. Even people who talk about race-neutral and [who say] we should stop talking about race are there supporting the defeat of these candidates. And I'm not one to stand back and condone those practices and be happy. I would point out that race was a major factor and they engaged in that kind of racial practice and I think it's deplorable. I watched our chief justice in North Carolina defeated in an election in North Carolina. And there is no way to explain it. And I don't care who wants to talk about it other than by race. And those same people who would talk about how tired they are of people always raising the race issue engaged in that practice that defeated our candidate.
BOND: What about people who don't engage in the racist practices and there are some who say, you know, "Why are you always bringing this up? You are driving a wedge between black and white people or black, white, brown and yellow people. You are always harping on this. You are always talking about it. We need to forget about it. That's what will solve these problems. Let's treat each other just as people. Stop talking about this all the time."
CHAMBERS: Well, I have been involved in this area, gee, for forty-five, fifty years. And I don't believe from my experiences and my reading that we can just ignore the problem. It's there. It happens. And we got to point it out wherever we see it. And I think we are doing more and more of that. And I don't agree that the problem will just go away if we ignore it. It doesn't happen. Isn't going to happen in America. And race has been and will be a pervasive factor in our lives. And I think that we get further in just pointing it out when we see it and forcing people to address it.
BOND: In another vein, if this was truly a raceless society you would be thought of as an education leader who's trying to take this institution and make it into a better institution than it has been. But because we are not that kind of society you're a black leader and your previous career as head of the Legal Defense Fund even more made you a black leader. Now how can you, or do you, distinguish in your own mind between leadership of and promotion of initiatives which help the progress of black people and those which help the larger society become a better society? Are these always the same thing?
CHAMBERS: Well, one would hope that promoting opportunities for minorities would always be advantageous to the larger society. And in that instance, I think it sort of depends on the way that people think and what they think about. In my opinion, though, it does help the larger society. When we can bring more people into decision making, can solicit their ideas and thoughts about matters, and can encourage their participation, it is all in my opinion beneficial to the larger group. I listened to your question about being classified as a black leader or a black educator. That is quite true and I don't know in this society if we will ever get to the point anytime soon where working to help improve education opportunities for a certain group would allow you to be classified as an educator or leader of American interests.
BOND: Have you ever felt that this designation, this "black before leader", for you is limiting in any way? That it restricts you in any way?
CHAMBERS: I don't think it restricts me. I think it's – and some people would think it was demeaning. But I don't – I don't really worry that much about that. If I'm doing something that will help people, and particularly black people, I don't worry about the characterization.
BOND: I guess I didn't mean in a demeaning kind of way, but just that – the expectations that some people say, "Oh, well, you know, that's what he does; he's a black leader and we expect that." And it's great, wonderful. But that it somehow limits you. I guess I do mean restricts you. That if you had an idea that was race-neutral that people wouldn't pay any attention to it, because it is not expected of you.
CHAMBERS: Well, that's perhaps one way of looking at it. I think if I had a race-neutral idea –
BOND: I'm not saying that you don't.
CHAMBERS: If I had a race-neutral idea that I could demonstrate would really be beneficial to all people – even though coming from a black person who is involved in it – that it could be accepted by folk across a racial line, an ethnic line, an idea that was in the best interest of all of us and one could move – whoever it comes from. But I think those questions sort of reflect the problem that we will be working with and confronted by in years to come; namely, how do we get beyond the race issue? And we aren't going to get beyond the race issue until we can really put it aside and can ensure that people are being accorded rights and opportunities without consideration of race.
BOND: I am not quite sure if I know how to put this, but I can imagine that if you had an idea that would advance the status, the economic status of Appalachian whites in North Carolina who are a population more poor than the rest, I wonder what kind of reception this idea would receive? Assuming it's a wonderful idea, a great idea. And whether or not you would feel comfortable in promoting this idea.
CHAMBERS: Well, certainly I would feel comfortable in promoting the idea. I think whether it would be accepted would depend how discriminatory we are, all are, black and white, in our belief and thoughts about people because they are poor. And to me the Appalachian problem is one where we reflect our disdain, and people will argue about that, for people who are poor. And we aren't worried about really providing help and assistance for them. If we were interested in really helping people, whatever their race, in Appalachia, we would be doing the same thing that we do now for the oil companies and the cigarette industry and others. But we aren't that committed yet. So, to me, if I had an idea of how we could help the people in Appalachia, we would get a reception based on the way that people view folk who are poor.
BOND: In a slightly connected vein, do you think you have a different style of leadership or perhaps a different style of presentation when you are dealing with a group that's all white, when you are dealing with a group that's all black, and when you are dealing with a group that is composed of lots of different people?
CHAMBERS: Well, in one sense I think that I would be guilty of that. Particularly when I really want to get a group to support a particular idea and I am trying to pull together the best approach for achieving that objective. When I am not that concerned and I am more concerned with pointing out the inequities of practices, I wouldn't care, and I would tell people, whatever their race or gender, that there was a problem that we really ought to address. You know, I think that all of us have to appreciate that what I say as a black person in a black environment may not be convincing to a group of Hispanics, whatever I'm talking about. And it may not be true or acceptable to a group of Asians and all that. And one then really has to figure out the best way to present an issue for the culture of the people with whom one is talking. And so, it may require that one say something differently.
BOND: Is there a universal style and language? And if there is, is that desirable or are these separate approaches going to be with us and are perfectly reasonable for many, many years to come?
CHAMBERS: I don't know about the latter – perfectly reasonable – but I certainly expect it. One day, I believe, we will get to the point where we can talk with and deal with people of all races and nationalities without regard to their particular language. But I don't know of any universal language today.
BOND: But shouldn't there be? Should we be striving for a universality of presentation? Universality of argument?
CHAMBERS: One would hope that we are doing that. But, you know, I watch the argument now about English-only approaches. I know that a number of non English-speaking people are very much offended by that practice. If English were to be a universal language, it could help ease communication. But it wouldn't necessarily mean that folk who are not English-speaking people would be that happy with that approach. I think what we are fighting now is a prejudice that is very deep within all of us. And we all have to keep working to educate people and helping to encourage people to learn to respect everyone else and to appreciate that what I may be saying or you may be saying, whatever language, is designed to really provide opportunities for them.
BOND: But in the United States both black and white people speak English and can understand each other generally when they are talking across racial lines. But there're admittedly different styles one might employ, you might employ if you are speaking to the all-black Links [Inc.] and another style you might employ if you are speaking to the all-white Rotary Club. Do you think if the Rotary Club people saw you talking to the Links they might think, "Ooh, that's not the same guy we saw who spoke to us last week," and vice versa? Would it be jarring for these audiences?
CHAMBERS: Well, you pit the Links and the Rotary.
BOND: Yeah, maybe that's not –
CHAMBERS: What I would talk to the Links about would not necessarily be the same thing that I would talk to the Rotary about. But the language used or the approach would likely be –
BOND: Let's say the Rotary and the Prince Hall Masons.
CHAMBERS: Yeah. Well, well, the approach would likely for those groups be the same. I think that with the Prince Hall Masons that you're dealing with a group that is knowledgeable about a number of things and will understand positions that one may be advancing. And the Rotary would also be knowledgeable about positions. So one can basically say what one would like to say without fear of antagonizing a lot of people in that respect.
BOND: Well, the Rotary might not be – they might be receptive, but they might not be initially sympathetic. You might have a greater convincing job to do with the Rotary.
CHAMBERS: That's a different question. And you are right. Whether whatever one is saying is going to convince anybody. But I would imagine, from what I know about Prince Hall and the Rotary, that the groups I know would be receptive to an approach that was basically the same.
BOND: I want to go back to something we had talked about a short while ago, and that is what kind of strategies do you use, do you employ in speaking to different groups of people, not necessarily racially different, but just different? For example, in your position you've to talk to legislators. I am guessing that is one strategy. You've got to talk to alumni. I am guessing that's – How do you address these different groups?
CHAMBERS: Well, the legislators, we generally appeal for them to provide support for a fledgling HBCU, that has in our case been neglected over the years and that is at the threshold of really developing some programs, etc. I always took the approach, I never wanted, didn't think that I would actually want it, that North Carolina Central was built as a counterpart to the University of North Carolina. And we at Central should not rest until we have the exact equivalent. Well, obviously that has ruffled a lot of feathers. But people have appreciated the need for doing a lot more than they have been doing. When they look at it from that historical perspective with the alumni, we talk about loyalty to an institution and how it has progressed and where we think it is going and why we need their support in order to get where we are moving. Showing that we have been able to do some things with their help and then talking about some other things that we can do.
BOND: Well, what you are describing is a different approach based on the demand or request that you are making of these different groups of people. What about altering your approach depending on who they are? Not so much as because of what they can offer you, but just because of who they are? Legislators are politicians. Alumni are a wide variety of different kinds of people. Potential contributors are yet a third – business people in the Triangle area. Do you devise a different strategy, not only based on what you are requesting, or – but just based on who they are?
CHAMBERS: Yeah. Well, I guess one should say generally. Because the different groups would be more responsive depending on the approach. I was talking about Central as compared to Chapel Hill because it is one approach. It helps those who are allocating resources to appreciate that there are funds needed in order to make some improvement for alumni. It helps them to know that they are in a position to give and that what they give can be extremely beneficial to the group. For the business community it – you know, I guess I got this from Vernon Jordan, it helps for them to appreciate that whatever they are giving or the fact that they are giving can be beneficial to their company or to them and that it's not just a one-way street in terms of the benefits. So one does frequently employ different approaches depending on the group.
BOND: And these approaches don't have to be or can – I don't want to say can be contradictory, because that's not quite it. But you can approach the legislators in one way that you wouldn't dream of using with the other group. And I guess it depends on who the groups are, what the groups are, and what the need is.
CHAMBERS: It does. And the other thing that I should point out is that legislatures are changing. The number of blacks in the legislature today is interesting and it forces one to sort of change the approach that one might have or otherwise have had with the legislature, because blacks in the legislature will look at issues in one way that one has to anticipate in the approach that one is making. So we have, I have, used slightly different approaches in going to different constituencies. And I think that it is necessary because their interests are different. And some of those approaches have been modified or have to be modified because the constituency or the nature of the constituencies themselves is changing.
BOND: Yes, as you say the legislature changes, has changed over time. It's gotten more black members. In many ways, more small "d" democratic today than would have been true thirty years ago. So your approach must change to this.
BOND: Now I've heard you speak in the presentation that you gave here about poverty. And a few moments ago we were talking about poverty and last night about the difficulty, about the inability so far to have poverty defined as a class, as a protected class. I think probably we Americans are really reluctant to talk about class. Some do. But generally speaking, it's not discussed here. And even though most people will describe themselves as middle class in America, no matter how rich they are. And sometimes no matter how far down the economic ladder they are. It's just not part of our discussion or discourse. How do you get people to talk about this, this economic divide among us?
CHAMBERS: To me it's just as difficult a subject to get people to talk about as talking about race. We are all reluctant to talk about race and we are reluctant to talk about poverty because it forces us to really make judgments on whether we really need to reach out and help. I've never seen African Americans as disturbed as in a session we had once where we were talking about taxing people more to provide assistance for poor people, taxing them to provide health care or taxing them to provide housing. African Americans can be as disturbed as whites in discussions that talk about providing assistance for poor people. And yet, I don't think that we are going to be able to really address our ills until we get so that we can do that – [the question] is, how do we get to that point? I don't know how we can do it unless we just continue to bring this to the attention of everybody.
BOND: But you know, as you say, there is this resistance both because people imagine having a concern for people lower down the ladder than we are, requires some sacrifice on our part that we are not prepared to make, or because they say, "Gee, I did make it." And there must be something wrong with those people. They are not able to come up to the standard I've achieved.
CHAMBERS: Those are two reasons that folk might advance or why they don't want to help or don't want to talk about poor people. But another one could be just disdain for people who are poor. And I fear that that is there among a lot of people. Something wrong with being poor. Always has been. And God didn't bless them or they didn't do what they needed to do to get out from the barriers that they had to face or they are just not our kind.
BOND: But you know almost all African Americans who go back two, three generations in this country were incredibly poor, almost all of them. And yet today we are about two-thirds doing pretty well, and only a third in desperate poverty. What accounts for us having done that well, have overcome that something wrong? Why is it okay for us to have overcome it, and not okay for us to think about others overcoming it in the future?
CHAMBERS: That's a good question. But it's there. And I think will likely be there. But we got the two-thirds group through a lot of efforts that were made by you and others during the civil rights era. And we opened up a lot of opportunities. And it's amazing today to see the number of blacks who are in what I would call non-traditional positions. Getting them to go the extra mile and opening up opportunities for others is going to be a major challenge. But to me it's still possible. It's one of the things that we keep working on. And I think that it would be as painless as it was for us to move from, what was it, 10 percent or less, to the two-thirds now. And so I hope there is a commitment by our leaders today to ensure that the poor, whatever their race really, are provided opportunities to enjoy the fruits of America.
BOND: It seems to me that there's not a great across-the-board commitment to that among leadership figures, that it strikes me that there is an enormous influence on increasing the middle class by creating additional opportunities for the middle class, rather than bringing other people into the middle class. And it also appears to me, and I want to ask you if you think this is true – that there are people in this large middle class who say, "I don't have to help other people, I am demonstrating to other people by my own example. So the fact that I am successful by itself is enough contribution for me to make. I don't have to give money to the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund. I don't have to join the Links. I don't have to do anything. I am. And that's it." What do you say to those people?
CHAMBERS: Well, that they got where they are because someone else stopped and provided assistance.
BOND: No, "I did it because I'm a genius, I'm brilliant, I'm hardworking, I'm clever."
CHAMBERS: There was a period despite how great or brilliant people were when they couldn't advance.
BOND: Well, that was way back then, this is today. "I got where I am on my own merits. Lifted myself up by my own bootstraps."
CHAMBERS: Yeah, they say that. A lot of them even today. And yet we all have to appreciate that no one really advanced without someone else providing assistance. They may not buy that. But, to me, that's true. I like to approach problems like this from to me a legal and a moral perspective. I think morally there is an obligation, however one reached his or her condition, to really reach out and help others to escape. And I always approach it from that perspective as well. And I think that constitutionally or legally that there are obligations to provide assistance for the poor. And third I think we really help ourselves when we help the poor. If all people, as I know Martin Luther King said, are provided opportunities and are free, then all of us can feel free.
BOND: I think that the moral responsibility is pretty well understood, even if it's not obeyed. But the constitutional responsibility doesn't seem to be there. How do you get that there?
CHAMBERS: Well, it isn't there yet. That's what I was talking about last night, that we need to help evolve constitutional principles that would ensure that there would be no discrimination against people because of their poverty status. And that's something that we will continue to work on. But I think we will get there, just like I think Thurgood and others worked to ensure that race was removed as a barrier to opportunity. And I think that we aren't going to get very far in this country until we eliminate poverty as a barrier to opportunity.
BOND: Now, how does leadership change over this period? What are the demands on black leadership today as opposed to twenty, thirty, forty years ago? When you were at the Legal Defense Fund how was, if at all, how was the demand on your leadership different from the demand on Thurgood Marshall and then Jack Greenberg?
CHAMBERS: Well, I think as time passes leaders have to become much more diplomatic and less dictatorial.
BOND: Do you mean with their outside constituency or with the inside constituency?
CHAMBERS: With the inside, and somewhat with the outside as well. Thurgood could generally sort of make a decision and direct that it be implemented. Jack did a lot of that as well. But Jack had to negotiate more. I had to negotiate a lot. And I think that Elaine has to negotiate a lot. And employees, our people are much more at ease in raising questions about leadership.
BOND: Is that in part a reflection of the employer/employee relationship change over time? Or is it something else? That is, are the people who work for Thurgood Marshall in a different relationship with Thurgood Marshall than the people who work for Elaine Jones are with Elaine Jones?
CHAMBERS: I can't really answer that. I don't think that there is that much. I think the people themselves have changed. And we revered Thurgood. If he said that chalk was white, chalk was white. We didn't care to question that. If he said that the justice would do better if approached this way, then the justice would do better if approached this way. Jack didn't take that much hands-on in doing things. But he would say this is the approach that we are going to make and that was the approach that we were going to make. And he also would line up his votes on a board of directors to ensure that that happened. I had to go negotiate a lot more with everybody. And I know Elaine has to as well. So those are –
BOND: Well, what was the change between Greenberg's tenure and yours? Why did this increase –
CHAMBERS: It was a matter of degree. Jack became Director Counsel at a point when a lot of black people thought that civil rights organizations ought to be led by black people. And he did a fantastic job in holding the organization together and moving it ahead and focusing mostly on issues because we were right in the midst of the civil rights demonstrations and others. And people had to look at those issues more so than "leadership". But even so he still had to negotiate where he was going. I followed Jack and people had gotten to the point where they wouldn't mind questioning certain leadership decisions. And they did it even more so when I was there. And so that – and Elaine comes along and –
BOND: And is a woman –
CHAMBERS: And is a woman. And so they do question. And so you have to be a bit more diplomatic with the way you operate.
BOND: I just had a thought and don't want to talk about this a long time, but is it fair to say that Jack Greenberg was a black leader?
CHAMBERS: I would think that he was. As much so as any black leader I've seen. And I watched Jack operate and I know that he was as involved in directing that organization and bringing people along as anybody that I've seen. I've seen him work with the black leaders of that era, including Martin King and Whitney Young, among others. And they respected him as a "leader" in that respect. So I would think so.
BOND: So, at least in this instance, racial leadership is not dependent on your race. It's dependent on what you do and how well you do it.
BOND: Coming forward again, when you become the Chancellor you've got to make all kinds of decisions, as anyone would in this position or others. Do you have a decision-making style or strategy that you employed both as Chancellor and at the Legal Defense Fund before that? Are there – and even in your law practice before that? Is there a style that you follow in coming to decisions that you are going to make?
CHAMBERS: I would think so, although I know others will argue that I don't have.
BOND: Tell me what you would think and then tell me what the others would say.
CHAMBERS: Well, I like to first identify the problem and go through whatever is necessary in order to identify the problem. And then I like to listen to the different approaches that people might offer. So I don't mind going to or picking up a phone and talking with any number of people about the problem and about the approaches for resolving it. And then I take all of those things and arrive at a decision.
BOND: Now in some of these decisions, at each of these places – the law firm, at the Legal Defense Fund, at the Chancellor's position – in some cases you could make decisions just on your own. You speak, it's done. In other cases you have to be consultative. And I understand how you can choose which is which. But to what degree in the consultative decision making do you broaden out to the widest possible group of people? I guess I'm thinking particularly about the Chancellor's job where your constituency is not just the students and faculty and administrative staff, but the alumni, the legislature, the board, I mean, a wide variety of constituencies. How do you stay in touch with all these people?
CHAMBERS: Well, okay – you brought several items together –
CHAMBERS: – but that's okay. I stay in touch largely by going to lunch, telephone calls, frequent meetings. And I don't mind doing it. A lot of my colleagues think that I spend too much time trying to be democratic. But I think that it's absolutely crucial because part of the decision making, in my opinion, requires that one build a kind of consensus to have some support once the decision is made. And so that takes some time and takes some effort.
BOND: Do you find that reaching consensus on decision A may make it easier for you to make unilateral decisions on issue B?
CHAMBERS: It can. But at the same time – at the same time one has to appreciate that doing that can create problems for decision C. Because I think people get used to having some input in some decisions. And if they are excluded with decision B, they will remember it when you come to decision C.
BOND: Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the '54 Brown decision?
CHAMBERS: I was in high school in Montgomery County. And we paused in a class and all of us rejoiced.
BOND: A teacher made an announcement?
CHAMBERS: A teacher made an announcement. And we were all extremely happy, because we understood the decision freed all black people.
BOND: You understood that?
CHAMBERS: That's what the teacher was telling us.
BOND: Okay. Did you understand then that this was something that would happen like that, or when would it happen?
CHAMBERS: I think all of us did. I think, I know at my school we thought this was something that would be immediate. That the court had directed that there would be no more forced segregation. But we didn't really step back and think about what that would mean. We were in our little school. White students were across town in their little school. We didn't think about whether it meant that our school would be closed and we would be shipped there or vice versa. All we knew was that the court had said no more discrimination.
BOND: So you thought about it, if I can, in an abstract way, rather than in a concrete way. It was something wonderful and good, but it was abstract, not real. When did it become more real?
CHAMBERS: In terms of timing, in North Carolina, you know, we started with the Pearsall plan and the opposition to integration and the efforts by the then governor to ban implementation of Brown among others. We, in those debates, which began I guess shortly after the decision, appreciated that it was much more to implementing that decision than we had originally thought. And so we saw three or four years – or even more in some instances – that we had a decision out there that we thought was going to free us. And yet, a lot of barriers that would make it impossible for that to happen. So if you are looking for a time period, I would guess that, gee, it would have been '54 to '62 or '63.
BOND: Now, were these governor's actions in delaying tactics? Did you think of them as they are contemporarily happening as simply delays or as barriers that could not be overcome?
CHAMBERS: Well, I viewed them as barriers that – I guess we always had some faith that things would eventually be removed. But we knew that they would be there for a long time and we had to continue to fight to get them removed.
BOND: So you were always optimistic. Cautiously optimistic?
CHAMBERS: Cautiously optimistic.
BOND: Ever completely despondent?
CHAMBERS: No. Not in the sense that we thought that it would never happen. We were despondent in the fact that our leadership had taken this kind of position and would bar us and other black children from getting a better education.
BOND: So now we are fifty years past, almost fifty years past. Looking back – disappointed?
CHAMBERS: Yes, I'm disappointed. I'm just as disappointed with that as I am with the fact that we still are wrestling with the issue of race. I have talked with a number of people about how they felt in '54 with the decision. And I don't think that I'm unusual or that our class members were unusual. I watched, I read Bob Carter's comments. Thurgood's comments. Jack's. There was this real dilemma of how do you enforce that decision. And I think that Thurgood and Bob thought that it would happen immediately, that would be some edict that you must now integrate the schools. Integrate them how wasn't clear. And I don't think anyone thought that it would be that long in achieving "integration," however it was defined. Even today I am not certain if people have agreement on what Brown meant in the sense of how you or whether you integrate the schools.
But there was this hope that it meant that black people would now have a chance to do whatever they wanted to do in order to improve conditions in life. We have gone through these struggles. It has been frustrating and really disappointing and bitter. And looking back I don't think that black people are just angry with everybody else because of it. They realize that it's part of the American system. But they are disappointed that they really have to go through this kind of process. On the other hand, in today's milieu people like to assume that we are now free, that we have removed all the barriers. And all the segregated schools are now integrated. And that is another frustrating problem for us to address.
BOND: I wonder if in some ways, Swann, the Swann case in which you are intimately involved, 100 times more so than Brown – which has to be an abstract to you in North Carolina – if the Swann case is up and down – that is, achieving this great Supreme Court victory and then years later having seen it chipped and chipped and chipped away – if that doesn't lead if not to some kind of cynicism, at least to some kind of disappointment?
CHAMBERS: Well, you know, I – first of all, Swann has not been completely reversed. We had a decision that said that "You stop doing the bussing whatever assignments based on race." And I doubt seriously if that is going to be the final disposition of that case. There is a lot of opposition in the community to it. So much so that I think that even if it became the final word, the board would insist on something else. Because one thing that has grown out of Swann is that people appreciate the advantages of an integrated school system. And they will insist on that kind of system whatever the court may be talking about. But I also think that the court will appreciate the need for diversity in education and would likely modify that decision as well.
BOND: You are awfully optimistic about that.
CHAMBERS: I'm optimistic. I was really impressed with the way black and white people supported that decision and supported integration of the Charlotte schools. Obviously there was some opposition by both black and whites. But the vast majority of them really thought it was better, far better to have integrated schools than what we had had previously. And I think the vast majority would like to keep that.
BOND: Well, you know, it's one thing to have community support for this ideal and another thing to convince the Supreme Court of this ideal. Are you equally as optimistic?
CHAMBERS: Yes. Yes, I am. You know I watch the Court with this anti-affirmative action approach and unfortunately I don't think the Court has really thought about what it's saying. And I think that we have begun already to see some retrenchment or modification in what the Court has been doing. A Court saying that you can't use race? You've got to be crazy. And if you can use race, then you can begin doing a lot of the things that we were doing previously. I watched with the university systems talking about more affirmative action practices in higher ed. And then as you begin to eliminate a number of black students, no university can afford to have an all-white student body, particularly in those state supported. And I don't think that any private university would want to have an all-white student body. And if you can't have, then you really got to think about race and attracting other students. And they are doing it.
You know, this Texas thing about the top ten percent of a high school class is just a substitute for affirmative action. California moving to something similar, is again a substitute. And so you are going to have to have race as a factor. And I think the Court is going to appreciate that and will likely modify. And I don't care – now I know that there are some people who are going to point to the Supreme Court and not want to see Brown implemented and would likely reverse Brown if they could. But I think that the good people on the Court, the good will people, would want to see the country advance and would want to see us maintain some diversity in the school system.
BOND: As I started to explore whether or not we are going to have a majority of good will people, but that is something at the moment which is just unknown.
BOND: So let me go back to the beginning of your legal career and ask you in the few minutes that we have left, your cases come in, you decide to take or not, or whatever, to represent these people. How did you go about then setting strategies? I don't mean marshalling the legal arguments or writing the briefs or so on, but setting strategies for convincing someone that your client was right or your client had been wronged and that justice ought to prevail? How did you marshal your energies and forces to do that? Is that too broad a question?
CHAMBERS: Well, let me see if I can –
BOND: I know every case is different.
CHAMBERS: Yeah. But I think in the civil rights area we had some major efforts to bring people together and strategies together to try to plan how we were going to approach different problems. In the school area the biggest problem we had in the early stages was to convince black people that they ought to assert their rights. NAACP was very good in this, in going around with mass meetings and bringing people who were scared to death out to talk about the advantages of integrated schools. More recently, the problem is whether we could develop the theory that integrated schools was the best approach for education for the black children in the community. For that you had to really marshal some people, experts and others, to talk about how integration would help advance opportunity of students in education, black students particularly. So convincing a group or marshalling evidence of pulling a case together was a lot more sophisticated than in the early stages.
BOND: So it's not simply a matter of going to court and making the best argument. It's also a matter of rallying community and building up support in the large community for the ideas that you are later going to argue in court. There's a step before you open the doors to the courthouse. Now that's something that I've read that Charles Houston liked to do. But I hadn't realized that later generations did this as well.
CHAMBERS: I think you have to because you would have, in most cases, opposition by black people to some of the things that you were trying to do. And you would want to help as many black people as possible appreciate that the approach was the best approach for black children.
BOND: Now in your role as Chancellor, have you ever had to follow this multi-step process?
CHAMBERS: Oh, yeah.
BOND: You want something done, you can't just or you think you can't just go to people and say here's my idea, let's do it. You have to do more than that?
CHAMBERS: Oh, yeah. Just talking about diversity on the campus. Because there are a lot of black students and black faculty who would like to keep the school as it was. And they dream about an all-black North Carolina Central in 3000. And getting them to appreciate that you won't have the students, or the faculty, or the funding resources, that the Constitution would not permit this or that, requires time and effort. And we have to go through and do it.
BOND: But there must be inevitably at least some people in the end who say, "I don't care what the Constitution says, I don't care about the funding is, I don't care about any of this. I don't want to do it."
CHAMBERS: There are.
BOND: And do you just forget them or do you keep –
CHAMBERS: No, you do as much as you can to convince them and you try to show them and you keep your lines open. And you keep communicating. But you appreciate that you have to do it and that is to communicate. And you also appreciate that not everybody is going to be supporting what you are talking about.
BOND: Well, on that note, thank you for supporting this effort. We much appreciate it. And thank you for being here.
CHAMBERS: Well, thank you very much. Now I can go back down across the country and continue those efforts.
BOND: Well, I hope you have a pleasant trip.
CHAMBERS: Thank you very much.