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Civil Rights Leader Julius Chambers Speaks at MLK Event

By Eddy Ball
February 2007

Julius Chambers
Main Event Speaker Julius Chambers (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Bill Laxton
Director of the Office of Administration and Resources Management EPA-RTP Bill Laxton (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

book cover of a book: Martin Luther King Jr, by Coretta Scott

The ice and snow on January 18th may have delayed the Main Event in the Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., scheduled for 10:00 AM, but they failed to dampen the audience's enthusiasm for Keynote Speaker Julius Chambers, LL.D., LL.M. Ten minutes into the introductions, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NIEHS employees had filled nearly all of the available seating in the conference rooms of the EPA main building.

Bill Laxton, director of the Office of Administration and Resources Management EPA-RTP, introduced Chambers and offered a brief history of his accomplishments. A native of North Carolina, Chambers has been a "first" virtually all of his life. He was the first in his law school class at UNC-Chapel Hill, the first African American to serve as editor-in-chief of the UNC Law Review, founder of the first African-American law firm and the first chancellor of North Carolina Central University (NCCU) to challenge the EPA on its record of civil rights compliance and environmental justice.

Chambers began his talk with a frank account of his criticism of EPA and his quest to persuade the agency to live up to its mission in regard to poor people and minorities. He denounced the agency in the early 1990s for what he saw as "intentionally discriminatory" employment practices and for its failure to combat "environmental racism" by not opposing the dumping of hazardous materials in poor and minority neighborhoods.

However, as a legal scholar, former Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and a consummate negotiator, Chambers combined his criticism with an invitation for EPA and NCCU to partner in efforts to remedy the situation. As a consequence, EPA made strides to correct its shortcomings and aggressively promote minority involvement in science and environmental protection.

Chambers, who led the legal team in the landmark school busing case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), reviewed the Supreme Court's recent decisions concerning the use of race as a consideration in correcting past discrimination. In the jurist's opinion, a gradual erosion of civil rights has been taking place in these decisions, a trend which challenges advocates of equal opportunity. "The threat [to equality] is real," he argued, "and it poses a serious problem for us."

Chambers countered his grim account, however, with a call for renewed efforts as he invoked the legacy of King and of Justice Thurgood Marshall, one of the speaker's predecessors at the head of the LDF. "To be sure, our problems are different [than theirs were]," he reminded the audience.

"But we start with some advantages. We've at least seen that we can convince people to change." Chambers challenged the audience to see King and Marshall not as historical figures and icons of a movement whose time has past, but as leaders whose spirit can inspire people to take on the new challenges of today and tomorrow.

Near the end of his speech, Chambers challenged the EPA once again. "I want to take this opportunity," he said with a smile, "to present four proposals" for new partnership efforts between EPA and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs):

  • Designation of NCCU or other HBCUs as EPA research institutions with EPA research facilities
  • Establishment of an EPA center to educate citizens about environmental needs, creating what Chambers called "citizen scientists"
  • Utilization of empty EPA buildings in RTP as scientific facilities for NCCU
  • Expansion of EPA collaboration with HBCUs to promote the recruitment and training of minority scientists

At 70, Chambers remains a vigorous and devoted advocate for what he sees as justice for all people - a country where individuals have rights to equal employment, equal housing, equal healthcare and equal environmental opportunities. For him, as for the other speakers at the event, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday is, in the words of his wife Coretta Scott King, "Not a black holiday, but a people's holiday."

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