Interviewer: Susan Glisson
Interviewee: Julius Chambers
Date: August 6, 2002
G: It is Tuesday, August 6, . I am in Charlotte, North Carolina, with Julius
Chambers. This is Susan Glisson. Thank you so much for your time, Mr.
C: You're welcome.
G: I wanted to know if you could tell me a little bit about how you came to know
about the Southern Regional Council and what your role was with them?
C: Through a friend who practiced medicine here in Charlotte named Raymond
Wheeler, who had been an active member of the Council for years, and through
Fred Alexander, who was an active politician here in Charlotte.
G: You came to work with them, you said, in the mid-1960s?
C: I decided to become a member and was fortunately elected as a member
somewhere in the mid-1960s.
G: Did you serve on the board?
G: How did you see the role of the Southern Regional Council at that time?
C: It was a catalyst for change to bring about improved race relations, in the South
primarily. They worked with black and white citizens in the various states in the
South, helping them appreciate that they could improve their lot if they would
work together to make sure that everybody had an equal chance. We focused
initially in education. That was a major issue for the southern region at that time.
We also had a lot of activities with public accommodations, sit-ins, for example.
But primarily, it was an organization designed to bring black and white citizens
together to improve relations.
G: Did you have a sense that the SRC. was threatened by, or did it encourage, the
kind of activism that you mentioned, challenging public accommodations or some
of the other things that, say, a group like SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership
Conference] or SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] might have
been known for? Were they concerned about those kinds of things or worried
about that kind of tactic?
C: They were concerned about discrimination against black people in practically all
walks of life. They highlighted blatant practices of discrimination and sought to
sway public opinion about it. They were not a politically activist group, as such,
seeking legislation, etc. The thing I found extremely valuable with them, or one of
the things, was the ability to bring black and white people together to just talk,
and, second, the accumulation of valuable resources that assisted others, like
myself, who were involved with advocacy. I was, at the time, involved in a lot of
litigation, and it was always helpful to turn to the SRC to ask about what data
they had about the schools, what data about public accommodation or [other
relevant data]. They were always there.
G: Were they supportive of the other kinds of more grassroots activism?
C: They were supportive primarily in providing the resource material, rather than
advocating themselves. The organization was not an advocacy group, but it did
provide valuable information to those groups that were doing the advocacy.
G: So, it was definitely supportive of those kinds of things.
G: I know that a lot of the funding came from places like the Field Foundation and
the Ford Foundation, places outside of the South. Did you have any sense that
the foundations that were supporting some of that work would try to determine
the kind of work that would get done?
C: No, I think its policy started, and it continued, at least while I was an active
member, with its own agenda. It made its own decisions on how to prioritize
whatever it was going to do. There was enough going on to engage the SRC,
more than it had resources to become involved in. You had to make a decision
that you were going to do education or you were going to do this aspect of
education, you were going to look at public accommodation or this aspect of it,
and I know the group did that itself and it wasn't directed by anyone on high.
G: Did you have a sense that, say, the role of women or the role of African-
Americans within the SRC changed as the civil rights movement gained
C: The role of women changed. I think this was a much more open organization. I
am thinking about some of the women in the group who made sure that women
were given an equal role.
G: How did they make sure?
C: Well, the young lady from Florida, the young lady from Arkansas, the young lady
from Virginia, who demanded that women be treated fairly. We hadn't had a
woman president, and they demanded that we elect a woman president. They
demanded that women be allowed to stay on equal planes with men, and they
were. And you had men who were receptive to the demands of women's
advances. It was a pretty open, liberal group.
G: It was able to evolve as the social landscape kind of changed.
G: Did you have the same sense that it worked the same way for African-Americans
within the organization?
C: Yes. I think African-Americans more so than women in the beginning, because
the organization started with the purpose of improving race relations between
blacks and whites, and it engaged blacks and whites in the process. Blacks felt
pretty open with it and felt that the organization was really committed to
improving their opportunities. So they were very supportive.
G: You mentioned that there were so many things that could have been done and
the resources were limited, that the SRC had the ability to determine which
programs it was going to spend money on. Do you know how it made the
determinations, how it prioritized?
C: It had some good directors, and they looked at the resources and they looked at
where they felt he felt, [name?] they could be most effective. I think its most
effective role was in getting stuff to the media about the horrible problems that
blacks had to endure. That was extremely effective. The SRC made sure that its
information was accurate, was fair, and people felt confident in relying on what
the SRC had reported. I really think, although others may differ, that was the
most effective role that [the SRC] played over the years. But it was also
extremely important bringing black and white citizens together. You would be
surprised seeing some of the most antagonistic advocates on both sides being
able to sit down and talk, and that was the role the SRC was playing.
G: They could create a kind of neutral ground or common ground for people to
G: What media did it use to try to disseminate its message?
C: Primarily the news media. It published a number of different pamphlets and
publications that were pretty widely distributed, and it published a monthly
newspaper and the magazine, among other things. It was able to get the Atlanta
Constitution, the Arkansas Gazette, or whatever it is, the New York Times, and
the Washington Post frequently, to carry stories that they wanted published.
G: Did you have any sense if it ever used radio?
C: [Yes]. It [also] used television [to the extent possible].
G: Did they have public service announcements?
C: No. Well, they did a very limited amount. But they would get information to
reporters, who in turn would incorporate...
G: That into the news.
G: Do you remember, by chance, a broadcast called, The Friendly World, or some
variation on that theme. Edwin Randall would do spots for radio.
C: I can't remember.
G: I wonder if we could talk for just a minute about the V.E.P., the voter education
project. It was revived in 1966, which would have been sort of around the time
you were on the board. Do you have a sense of what the discussions were about
reviving V.E.P., the need for doing that and what should be its job?
C: I was saying the SRC. decided what its priorities would be. Registering people to
vote and encouraging people to vote were extremely important issues. They had
begun the VEP years before with a grant from [the] Ford [Foundation], I guess,
with Wiley Branton and Vernon Jordan. The people across the South really
began to engage VEP and SRC, because it was helping with efforts to register
people to vote. It became a major player in the increased minority enrollment [of
voter] registrations. I didn't see it that involved in actually getting people out to
vote, as such. We had discussions and all that, but getting people registered was
a major objective, and they organized it. There was a lot of talk back in the mid-
1960s about registration as a major issue, and there was collaboration with some
of the advocacy groups, particularly the lawyers, and trying to get more
legislation, more litigation, to challenge barriers that prevented people from
registering to vote. We brought cases talking about the test requirements for
registering and the location of the registration offices, and we worked a lot with
the Department of Justice to point out additional barriers. Invariably, people all
across the South began to turn to SRC and to VEP for assistance in getting
some organized effort going to get the public to register to vote. It was extremely
G: Do you think there was a sense among the SRC that, say, the Voting Rights Act
of 1965 signaled an increasing support for those kinds of activities on the part of
the [LBJ] Administration?
C: Oh, sure. I think SRC and VEP and others looked at all of those things as major
achievements and a need for getting more involved to advance. I don't think they
stopped with the voting rights legislation in 1965; they continued to point out
shortcomings of that legislation, the Voting Right Act of, what was it, 1957,
among others. It was helpful to have SRC there continually documenting the
problems that people were experiencing in trying to register to vote. SRC felt that
the VEP was extremely important for it, the
SRC, to carry on its role.
G: You mentioned a couple of some of the impressive folks who worked with that
project, Vernon Jordan and Wiley Branton, and there were others, John Lewis
and Julian Bond. Could you talk a little bit about the strengths that those folks
might have brought to the project?
C: Wiley and Vernon were extremely important in helping map strategies about how
to do things. Vernon was really a great personality to attract others into the effort.
John Lewis was always out there pressing to make sure that people stepped
forward and challenged discrimination wherever it existed. Julian Bond was very
active and equally involved. There were others, and there were some women. I
am trying to think of the woman's name in Florida who was a legislator who was
killed in an automobile accident [Gwen is all that I can remember]. There was
Shackleford from Arkansas and Brownlee from Arkansas, and there was Cashin
from Louisiana and Alabama. There were women and men, black and white,
who were actively pressing for voter registration. The belief was that blacks could
take care of themselves if they could get registered to vote, so there was a major
push by SRC to get the VEP funded and operational, and we had some good
people working with it.
G: This is about the period of time that the Black Power movement begins to
emerge. Do you have a sense of how SRC responded to that initiative?
C: I think probably like everybody. I think there was concern about the Black Power
advocacy, but also an appreciation of why people were advocating Black Power.
There was a need to really help people appreciate that they had things they
could do to make contributions. I viewed the Black Power movement as a kind of
psychological warfare to just get people charged up to do some things, to believe
in themselves, and I never viewed it as an exclusionary effort of black people. I
knew, as I am sure most of the advocates knew, that we had to do things with
others interraciallyy], but you really had a lot to deal with, a history of segregation
and slavery, so you had to bring people out of that mentality.
G: I interviewed a guy named Warren Pritchard, whom you might know. He worked
on one of the publications, and he talked about sometimes the feelings on the
part of some of the whites, feeling a little bit out of place. He said he went from
being righteous to being self-righteous in terms of the charges that were made
against SRC. Did you have any sense that there were some whites who sort of
felt a little out of water?
C: Not the ones I knew. I remember Paul Gaston from Virginia. I don't think he ever
felt out of place. I remember Joe Hass from Georgia, and he didn't feel out of
place. I mean, Joe and Paul would speak their piece no matter who was present.
I think they felt as part of a group of black and white people, and I think they
were received that way. Now, there may have been others who might have felt
out of place; in fact, I'm sure there were some, but on the whole, I think those
who were really active with the SRC, and had been involved with the SRC, felt
right at home.
G: I wonder, as southern politics began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s
and the George Wallaces began to have some appeal and the Democrats began
to lose sway and the Republican party began to hold sway, how did SRC
respond to those kinds of changes?
C: I think they felt a need to continue with the [programs] that they had been
pursuing, and they, at some point, modified the way they were approaching
things. I think you saw some of that with school desegregation. They went
through the same kind of change that other advocates went through. They
started off talking about freedom-of-choice and getting black kids transferred to a
white school to complete desegregation, to where you were demanding that
school systems move and buss kids where they needed to be in order to
integrate the schools and then to advocacy of just improving schools, which is
about where I think we are right now. With the jobs, it was the same change or
evolution. We talk about moving from a period when there was token solutions,
breaking the ice with one person or two people, no quota, no whatever, and we
got into the affirmative action issue with that, and I guess we still are arguing
about affirmative action. The objective was to make sure you got more than just
a token number of people, and that is still going on. The SRC changed as these
efforts were changing legally through the courts and through the legislature.
Same thing with housing and [the] same thing with health care, among other
things. I think it's a good example of how an organization like that really
represents the people.
G: What was the SRC's position on bussing?
C: They were very supportive. I was the lawyer for the Swann plaintiffs in Charlotte
[the Swann v. Mecklenburg County case that used large-scale busing to achieve
racial balance]. I was very active with SRC, and the SRC endorsed the opinion,
and we turned to SRC for a lot of the information we needed to press the case.
G: Do you remember, at the height of the Charlotte bussing crisis there was a really
flattering editorial on you by WBT [Television station in Charlotte, NC]? It was a
pretty conservative outfit, but they appreciated your ability to be able to talk to
lots of different folks.
C: Oh, well, you train [well] with SRC.
G: Did radio come into play at the time when you working on the Charlotte...?
C: I am sure it did. Did we utilize it? Not directly. We knew there would be certain
reports, and we knew that it was helpful to time some of things that we did or
said [to maximize media coverage]. Those reports we would tape, but our
thought was it was more important to use TV. We thought then, and now, it
reached a lot more people.
G: Did SRC help you all get information to the media during that effort?
C: Yes. When we were doing the Charlotte School case, we were part of a kind of
national effort. We had a similar effort in Alabama and in Virginia and in
Arkansas, among others, and what we were trying to do was to develop a record
that we could carry to the [U.S.] Supreme Court. Swann was the first one to get
there. We got there [later] with Mobile and Virginia. We picked news
developments in the various states, to point out inequities, that were distributed
in various places, including Charlotte, and felt that helped with what we were
doing to improve education in Charlotte.
G: Did you have any sense about the black-owned radio station in Charlotte, WGIB
and its support for desegregation?
C: It wasn't the strongest advocate. We wanted to appeal to a media that reached a
broader audience than just African-Americans, and to do that, you had to go to
WBT or WBTV or WSOC-TV or whatever. Our approach was to a media that
had kind of a diverse listening audience.
G: Larger appeal. And the black radio station wasn't as supportive?
C: Well, the individuals were. I think there was some concern that being too out
there would jeopardize some of [its appeal]. We didn't press them, because we
were proud to have a radio station. But that was a problem that we had to deal
with throughout this struggle.
G: It is interesting because the SRC, I think, sometimes among historians it has this
label against it that it was more gradualist. Reading back into history, it is always
easier to say you should have been more radical or you should have advocated
total, complete integration, maybe more like the Quakers, say, or SNCC or pick a
group that was more radical. How do you respond to that kind of charge?
C: I think you had to do what you could do in the environment in which you
operated. I know in the 1960s and 1970s, we had a Justice Department that
wasn't supportive of more rapid change. Burke Marshall with the Kennedy
administration made it clear that he thought things had to evolve and it would be
too disruptive to go and press the law to be changed overnight. I don't know if
you had advocated more rapid change whether you would have gotten the kind
of reception that we got in many places. I think we did it the best way that we
could do it.
G: And then in some cases, it sounds like in Charlotte you were definitely more
progressive than, say, a black-owned business.
C: We were, and I think you really had to sort of pick and choose where you
demanded more rapid change.
G: How would you characterize the SRC's major achievements and contributions in
the South in the 1970s and maybe early 1980s?
C: One, again, I will go back, I think it was extremely important to have an organ
that would collect the data and report the data fairly, and SRC did a fantastic job
of that. It was the only institution we had out there, I think, that black and white
people could rely on to report what was happening and the effects of what was
happening, and it did a good job with it and it helped tremendously, I think, in
making it possible to change the practices that we were challenging. Second, I
think it did a good job in bringing black and white people together. Somebody
had to do that. It was the most effective organization I've seen in doing that.
People felt proud that a southern organization was doing it. It had its roots in the
South, and it had some good people from the South who worked on this
problem, and I think it was very effective with that. I put that as another highly
successful achievement of the SRC I think it did a lot in developing grassroots
groups. I never will forget how we had all these little organizations in Virginia and
North Carolina and South Carolina. They were advocacy groups out in the field
in the various states that made it possible for SRC to do its work, but also to
further publicize the kinds of problems that we were trying to bring to the
attention of the public, and I think that is a major achievement of SRC. I think it
did a great job in producing leaders. I don't know who would have thought that
Vernon Jordan would be where he is today or that Wiley Branton would have
been able to accomplish what he accomplished or that Julian Bond or John
Lewis would have done what they did. SRC provided a venue for them to train
and to grow, and they became great leaders. I think that was a major
achievement. I don't know if you know Steve Suitts.
G: Yes. I just interviewed him a few weeks ago in Atlanta.
C: Oh, you did. Well, I don't know what Steve was doing there, but he came to the
SRC from Alabama.
G: Right, from the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. He had started there.
C: And nobody knew Steve or had heard of him, but the SRC provided an
opportunity for him to really develop, and he did a great job at the SRC.
G: He came at a difficult time, financially, for the organization, and he seemed to be
able to really turn it around. He also mentioned, I asked him if there was
something at the end that I should have asked him that I didn't, and he said that I
should have asked him about the lawsuit against SRC under his directorship
about discrimination. I said, well, tell me about it.
C: Well, in response to your question, it did provide some opportunity for some
great people to go through and train to become great leaders.
G: May I ask you one more question?
C: Hm-mm [yes].
G: How do you think that historians should incorporate the SRC in the story of the
African-American freedom struggle and in the history of the postwar South
C: I was arguing with Dave Garrow [Emory University scholar of the civil rights
movement], who had this theory...
G: It's easy to do, I understand.
C: Yes, it is. He's all right.
G: Yes, he is. He is a good historian.
C: ...about, what came first, the chicken or the egg. He advocates that Martin Luther
King sort of made his own way and that the legal developments followed and that
things would have happened without some of the lawsuits. I think in looking at
the history of the South, historians will need to look at the players who helped to
make changes and some of the things that went into those changes. I think that
lesson would be extremely important even for today, when we are talking about
the kinds of problems we are experiencing. We had to have, whether in the
courtroom or in the legislature or in the executive branch or wherever, a
receptive public. I don't care what these judges say, they move and listen to what
the media says. You had to have someone helping the media appreciate the
need for something. We had to have someone out educating black and white
people about the problems and what people can do working together. Some
organizations, like SRC, were extremely important. I think historians would need
to look at that. We had some individuals who played some major roles, including
Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], but I don't think anybody could have made the great
strides that they made without support from other people and of organizations. A
historian fairly looking at history would have to report on a number of different
factors that helped to evolve.
G: The word that Charles Fraisian I don't know if you know him used was
"organic," the idea that there are lots of different efforts ongoing and that they
interact and support each other. Even David Garrow has the great [quotation] by
Ella Baker [SCLC leader] at the end of his book on King, that Martin Luther King
did not make a movement, the movement made Martin Luther King, which I think
is a pretty accurate assessment, not taking anything away from his contributions.
C: I am not sure whether Dave agrees with that.
G: He put it in there. That is kind of funny that he did, to me. Mr. Chambers, I
appreciate your time. Thank you so much.
C: All right. I would like to see what you come up with.
[End of Interview.]
10 pages Open
August 6, 2002
Pages 1-3: Julius Chambers was a board member of the Southern Regional Council (SRC) in the
1960s. Chambers remembers the role of the SRC as being a vehicle of change for improved race
relations in the South.. Chambers believes the SRC's most effective roles were its ability to
provide reliable information to the media, bring black and white people together to exchange
ideas, and provide valuable resources for individuals involved with advocacy. Chambers
describes the unique role women and African Americans played in the SRC.
Pages 4-7: Chambers discusses the Voter Education Project, its leaders and its successes in
registering large numbers of African Americans to vote. Chambers remembers the SRC
responding to the Black Power movement with concern over the tactics of the movement, but
also with an appreciation for why people supported the ideas behind Black Power. The SRC
modified their approach to the issues as southern politics began to change in the late 1960s and
early 1970s. Chambers points to the issues of education, jobs, housing, and health care as
examples of how the SRC changed as those issues changed through the courts and the legislature.
Chamber recounts his role as the lawyer for the Swann plaintiffs in Charlotte for the Swann v.
Mecklenburg County busing case. Chambers counters arguments that the SRC was too gradual
in promoting change by describing the circumstances of the time, and pointing out the necessity
of working within your environment.
Pages. 8-10: Chambers again points to SRC's ability to provide accurate data, bring black and
white people together, and produce good leaders as the major contributions and achievements of
the organization in the South. Chambers concludes that when evaluating the civil rights
movement, historians must recognize the critical role the SRC played in educating black and
white people, while also providing support to the individuals who played major roles in the