Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Development and Style

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.

BOND: Sure.

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.